Politics

Arms deal commission: When in doubt, refer to rule No 1 – don’t bet against Zuma

By Stephen Grootes 16 September 2011

We do live in truly astonishing times. Driving around the Malema disciplinary hearings venue, I nearly went off the road when I heard the “breaking news” that President Jacob Zuma was appointing a commission of inquiry into the arms deal.  It was one of those moments when, if you know the newsreader personally, you want to ring them up and demand to know if it was a joke. Or a mistake of some kind. Of course it wasn’t. Whether it could be a mistake for Zuma is another matter. On first blush, it’s important to remember that if there’s one thing that Malema will tell you, it’s that Zuma doesn’t move until he knows what the final outcome will be. Or unless he has to. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It seems the main reason is because the deadline for the Presidency to submit sworn affidavits in response to Terry Crawford-Browne’s application to the Constitutional Court was drawing near. In those documents, senior officials, perhaps even National Prosecuting Authority head Menzi Simelane, would have to explain why they did not want to investigate the deal. And once that process was in motion, a final judgment could see various judges setting the terms of reference for the commission. Of course Zuma would not want that.  It could be, well, highly inconvenient. Hence the desire to control the process himself by setting up his own commission.

There will also be fingers pointed at the Limpopo ANC Youth League who called for an investigation into the arms deal. But Zuma wouldn’t be keen to be seen jumping to Julius’s beat.

We will know more when Zuma takes more action. When he appoints a person to chair it, more reasons for this decision will become apparent, and when the terms of reference are made public, we may begin to understand what’s really going to happen. But in the strange, murky world of the ANC, this commission suddenly has the power to knock Malema off the front page. We’ve said before that Hawks boss Anwar Dramat could suddenly become very important, because he was investigating Malema and the arms deal. Thus he would have very real power over Malema AND anyone with something to hide in the deal. The person who chairs this commission will have the same power.

The short political answer to the question “why now” is that it suits Zuma to have it now. The Constitutional Court issue to one side for a moment, it could also be because holding such a commission will get a few enemies off his back. The League, sure, Crawford-Browne and the opposition parties don’t really matter to him politically. There is one other person. Thabo Mbeki. Yip, we’re back to this. The one person who was never really fingered in the arms deal, but who was present most of the time.

In 2004, I was a young, slightly scruffier reporter when I was dispatched to KwaZulu-Natal for the Shaik trial. It was certainly an interesting introduction to the planet that is our politics. It lasted for eight months, and finished with a wonderfully cinematic climax in mid-2005. Two weeks later, the phrase “relieved of his duties” entered our political lexicon. It was a case with many mysteries, some have been solved since, some have not.

But one of the more enduring recalls in my mind involved the former head of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), Gavin Woods. Woods was an IFP MP, grey-haired, with crutches; he was sworn in and told a very strange story. It involved a letter that was sent to him in 2001. It was long and sarcastic. He said it was the strangest letter he’d ever received from a fellow parliamentarian. Scopa had made findings about issues in the deal, and seemed to want to continue to investigate it. At the same time, Mbeki had decided to exclude Judge Willem Heath’s Special Investigations Unit (which had the power to cancel government contracts) from investigations into the deal. It was literally on the same day that Mbeki made that decision that this letter arrived.

Signed by then Deputy President Jacob Zuma.

As I said, it was long and sarcastic. After a long period of questioning, eventually the reason came out. The letter wasn’t written by Zuma. It was written by Mbeki. We’ve never really gotten to the bottom of why a letter written by Mbeki was signed by Zuma, especially when it was about something so crucial. Mbeki couldn’t really order Zuma to sign it – the Constitution doesn’t work like that. Perhaps some deal was struck because by then, Mbeki must have known that Zuma was getting into trouble himself on this issue. Maybe there was an attempt to obfuscate blame, to make the trail messier.

The extent of the corruption in the arms deal cannot really be overestimated. It was the single event that more than anything else led to the loss of innocence for the ANC. It seemed to entrap everyone in its web.

Zuma was trapped because, as ANC chair at the time (in a strange historical footnote, he was the national chairman of the ANC and the party’s provincial leader, but only deployed as an MEC), he was considered hugely powerful. And thus was charmed by Schabir Shaik. (The MEC appointment was essentially to keep him in KZN so that he could continue to make peace with the IFP, something we should all be grateful for. Even if he paid them back in the end by basically clutching the province away from the IFP, probably forever.)

In essence, Shaik was allowed to advertise himself as Zuma’s man. Zuma, twice, intervened with other business leaders to get Shaik contracts, the retainer paid to Zuma was, as Judge Hilary Squires put it, “an investment in political connectivity”. It was corruption pure and simple, and we all know how the National Prosecuting Authority was then nobbled to drop the charges against Zuma.

Things have changed since the time of the arms deal. Zuma is now President, and thus perhaps the person with the most to lose with any further investigation. Shaik is on “medical parole”, his brother is the head of the Secret Service, Mbeki is a former President with a hatred for Nato and Heath runs a forensic investigations company – and once worked for Zuma. Really, you can’t make this stuff up. And Jeff Radebe, who was in Cabinet when the arms deal contracts were signed, was in Cabinet all through the Mbeki years, and is there still, as justice minister. He has been asked by Zuma to take the “necessary steps to implement this decision”.

Depending on how you see the politics, and the situation with the legal application to compel Zuma to hold this commission, this act by the President could look like the move of a very confident man. Someone who really is consolidating his power, dealing with his enemies, getting rid of any albatrosses. Or it could be the act of someone driven to it against his will – but in control of the process. Either way, don’t forget the golden rule of South African politics. Don’t bet against Jacob Zuma. DM



Photo: REUTERS

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