Two and a half cheers for the Arms Deal terms of reference

By Stephen Grootes 28 October 2011

We who make up the South African political chatterati are a very cynical bunch. We have every reason to be. But sometimes, just sometimes, something happens that makes us actually pause in wonder. What has happened with the Arms Deal this week is very nearly one of those times. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Monday, when President Jacob Zuma announced that three judges would be on the commission of inquiry, we were chuffed with his choices. Judges Willie Seriti, Willem van der Merwe and Francis Lekgodi are sound, independent judges. But we knew the real meat of the issue would be in the terms of reference. Now we have them. Never mind chuffed, we’re bloody ecstatic. When this week goes down in history, it may be remembered for a certain point in time-space continuum when the change of face in a certain opposition party became reality, and it certainly won’t be remembered for any important protest. But it will almost certainly go down as the week that we finally began to properly with the Strategic Defence Procurement Package (SDPP) – the thing that led to the loss of our innocence as a country.

The terms in themselves are pretty simple, and there are only four of them. The one you’re interested in reads thus:

  • Whether any person/s, within and/or outside the government of South Africa, improperly influenced the award or conclusion of any of the contracts awarded and concluded in the SDPP procurement process and, if so:
  • Whether legal proceedings should be instituted against such persons, and the nature of such legal proceedings; and
  • Whether, in particular, there is any basis to pursue such persons for the recovery of any losses that the state might have suffered as a result of their conduct.
  • Whether any contract concluded pursuant to the SDPP procurement process is tainted by any fraud or corruption capable of proof, such as to justify its cancellation, and the ramifications of such cancellation.

It’s a bit of Latin, but basically, the three judges must find out whether there was anything dodgy, who was dodgy and whether they can be prosecuted for being dodgy.
It must also investigate the “off-sets”. At the time of the deal, the off-sets were seen a major part of the plan – it would see arms companies receiving contracts to sell the military pieces of kit, and they would in return set up factories and invest here. Way back, it seemed hugely clever and much was made of it. But very little of that actually happened.

But perhaps the broadest part of the entire “terms of reference” document is the fact that, actually, the fundamental rationale for the entire deal must be examined as well. The judges must examine “Whether the arms and equipment acquired in terms of the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages are underutilised or not utilised at all.”

And there are no time frames, cunning use of limiting language or anything like that. We now must accept, cynics that we’ve come to be, that this must be a bona fide attempt to clean up the mess of the Arms Deal. Really.

So then, what kind of president would do this? There must be two major reasons. The short answer is that it would have to be a president with nothing to hide. The other short answer is that it must be a president with everything to gain.

Let’s start with the nothing to hide. Up until now, the generally received wisdom – particularly from people like me who make up our commentariat – has been that Zuma is the one person we know to have taken money during the deal. His relationship with Schabir Shaik was described as “an investment in political influence” by Judge Hilary Squires. Shaik was an Arms Deal bidder, his brother Chippy was head of acquisitions at Armscor, thus Zuma was on the take. But clearly he knows that’s the only way he was on the take (bear in mind, no case against Zuma has been proven). In other words, he knows he has no skeleton in this closet.

But, to move to the “plenty to gain” answer, clearly he believes other people were on the take, we just don’t know about them. Thus the worst-case scenario for him would be a re-hash of the Shaik trial, which we all know about already anyway. But for everyone else involved, this commission could start to turn up some very interesting things. Particularly, it seems, about administrations past. It seems to be that no one involved in the current administration (or anyone that Zuma cares about at least) would be implicated.

So then, who should worry? Opinionista Chris Vick has already suggested that (http://dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2011-09-16-arms-deal-probe-is-thabo-the-target ) Thabo Mbeki may not have the worry-free retirement he didn’t want in the first place. And it may not stop at Mbeki. There may well be others. Often the people who were the secretary-general of the movement have a habit of getting sucked into these things. Now let’s see, who was the SG before Gwede Mantashe… oh, yes, that’s right… Kgalema Motlanthe, aka Kaizer Sose.

So then how would Zuma sell all of this to the ANC’s national executive committee? It is a given that party leaders will want to discuss the issue. Zuma and Mantashe can simply stand up and explain how this issue, the Arms Deal, will still be hanging over the party in 20 years time, if they don’t do this. And because the commission is only due to report back in two years time (i.e. after Mangaung), they can’t be accused of dirty politicking.

However our joy is not unrestrained. It would appear Zuma has made sure he has a get out of jail free card (no jokes please that he’s used it already). The commission will report to the president. So if something goes wrong, he will be the person who gets the report. There is a slight possibility of some naughtiness creeping in here. However, once the report is finalised, it seems it would have to be a very executive-minded judge who would rule against any legal bid to make it public under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. And we all know once a report like that exists, they tend to enter the public domain somehow – Protection of Information Act or no Protection of Information Act.

This has been President Jacob Zuma’s week. Despite the best efforts of a certain Young Lion. This has been the week in which the president has shown that it’s his roar that matters. And somehow, I can’t help but feel that while it’s been a good week for Zuma, it’s also been a rather good week indeed for the Good Ship South Africa. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: A Saab Gripen multi-task fighter plane. Reuters.



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"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old' when I would never call him 'short and fat?' Oh well I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!" ~ Donald J Trump