The letter, addressed to the president of the Ivorian electoral commission on December 1, was “sold” to African leaders by the regime of Laurent Gbagbo as an attempt by Sarkozy to pressurise the commission to announce the outcome of the presidential election in favour of opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara.
It was concocted in badly written French and distributed to various African governments.
France denounced the letter as “a crude forgery that reveals an ignorance of international practices and is a clear desire to harm the good relations that exist between France and Côte d’Ivoire”.
Despite this denouncement on February 22, South Africa’s minister of international relations and co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and/or her department distributed copies of it on at least two confirmed occasions.
A spokesperson for the European Union (EU) Mission in South Africa, Frank Oberholzer, confirmed that the letter was presented to a delegation of EU parliamentarians on February 24 which involved Mashabane.
According to a highly-placed source Mashabane also handed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the same letter during a meeting on February 27 and 28 in Geneva, Switzerland.
As far as can be determined the letter first surfaced among African leaders during the state visit to South Africa in December by Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos, a known close ally of Gbagbo.
This was after Dos Santos had flown to Abidjan to meet Gbagbo.
Department of international relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela denied that Mashabane or the department had used or were influenced by the letter in its engagements on the Ivorian crisis.
“The letter never became an issue in our stance on the Ivory Coast … no letter which is not ours would have influenced our position,” he said.
When asked if Mashabane or her department had handed the letter to third parties, Monyela replied: “I will not be drawn into the issue of a letter which is not our letter.”
One senior diplomat described South Africa’s treatment of the false letter as “perplexing” and another as “just plain stupid”.
It is understood that West African leaders are angry with the way South Africa handled the letter even after the Economic Community of West African States had rejected Gbagbo.
South Africa first supported the African Union (AU) position that Ouattara had won then changed, saying: “We hold no brief for any of them.”
It then supported the recent AU Peace and Security Council decision to finally declare Ouattara the legitimate president.
Monyela denied that South Africa had changed its initial stance.
He said the matter had been considered by a high-level AU panel [of which Zuma was a member] and that, as a result, South Africa supported the decision by the council to recognise Ouattara as the legitimate leader.