SOUTH AFRICA Not so slick 23rd February 2001 A probe into a secret trading oil trading deal costing the country millions of dollars is threatening some powerful interests In what is becoming a test-case for President Thabo Mbeki's government's ability to investigate corruption allegations, a major international oil trading company faces claims that it connived with its business partners in South Africa to bribe local civil servants in a secret deal that lost the country more than US$3 million. Trafigura, a London-based oil and metals trading company, is embroiled in the first major kick-back scandal to hit South Africa since 1994. The company's joint-venture operation in South Africa, High Beam Trading International, is at the centre of an investigation into the alleged payment of $60,000 in cash to officials at the state oil company, the Central Energy Fund, in exchange for a lucrative oil trading contract. Trafigura robustly denies wrongdoing and senior executive Graham Sharpe insists the South African contract is 'still valid'. South African state oil officials, whom investigators claim were also promised a further $2 mn. offshore, signed a confidential deal with Trafigura and High Beam in May 2000. The contract was signed without the knowledge of the Ministry of Minerals and Energy - which by law should have sanctioned the deal - and was sealed without an open tender. It effectively gave Trafigura/High Beam control over South Africa's strategic oil stock. The two companies stood to make US$20 million on the deal over fifteen months, investigators said. Yet Trafigura and High Beam Trading International insist that the deal did not break any existing rules.