South Africa confirmed on Wednesday it had given $10 million meant to help pay for the 2010 World Cup to a soccer official indicted last week in the United States, but said the payment was not a bribe as U.S. prosecutors allege.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula confirmed the contents of a leaked letter from the South African Football Association, which said money originally intended for organising the 2010 World Cup had been paid directly to former FIFA vice president Jack Warner.
But Mbalula said the payment was never intended as a bribe to secure the right to host the 2010 tournament, as described in the U.S. indictment. It was given as a donation to support the building of a soccer centre for people of African descent in the Caribbean, he said.
"We categorically deny our country and government bribed anyone to receive the right to host the 2010 World Cup. It was an approved programme and we can't understand why this is now interpreted as a bribe," Mbalula told a packed news conference.
Warner, the Trinidadian former head of soccer's governing body for the Caribbean and North and Central America, CONCACAF, is one of 14 officials and businessmen indicted last week in a U.S. fraud investigation that has engulfed global soccer.
The U.S. indictment says South Africa paid him $10 million as a bribe to secure the right to host the 2010 World Cup.
FIFA, the sport's global governing body, has confirmed that it paid $10 million to the Caribbean Football Union, a body then headed by Warner, out of funds originally earmarked to South Africa to help it host the tournament.
Sports ministry director general Alec Moemi, also at the news conference, said: "We gave the money unconditionally. Jack Warner was the leader of CONCACAF and the Caribbean Football Union, and a man of good standing."
Last week's U.S. Justice Department indictment alleged that Warner and other CONCACAF members of FIFA's executive committee sought to share the money in return for their votes.
It details how $750,000 was paid to former CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer, who was also on the FIFA executive at the time. Blazer has pleaded guilty to U.S. corruption charges.
"We refuse to be caught up in a battle between the United States and FIFA," said Mbalula. "We won the bid clean, we had the spirit of (late former president Nelson) Mandela, we had the spirit of the world. But we are not on the defensive. It is our responsibility to explain what this $10 million was for."
World Cup 2010 organising committee members had been expected to appear at the news conference, but they did not turn up. That means organising committee chairman Irvin Khoza and high profile chief executive officer Danny Jordaan have yet to address the allegations publicly.
Mbalula said the money paid to the CFU was intended to support a development centre, built by FIFA and named after its president Joao Havelange, in Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital.
A clip showing former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki talking about the African diaspora support programme in a 2010 television interview was played before the start of the news conference.