When future generations look back at this epoch, the R46-billion defence acquisition will be what triggered our loss of innocence. It was what changed the political story from a miracle nation that triumphed over oppression to a broken nation overcome with rot. It was where we detoured off the sun-dappled road and staggered down the dark, rutted path from where there seems to be no escape. Yet another government commission of inquiry has left South Africans feeling enraged and robbed of the truth, at a high cost. The military hardware, like the president’s Nkandla residence, stand as monuments of our decline. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Had there been no defence procurement, former president Thabo Mbeki and his Cabinet would not have stood accused of corruption and engaged in running battles with Patricia de Lille, Willem Heath and anti-arms campaigners like Terry Crawford-Brown. President Jacob Zuma would not have been in a meeting with Schabir Shaik and the French arms company executive Alain Thetard, where he allegedly uttered the words: “I see the Eiffel Tower lights are shining today”. “Eiffel Tower” was allegedly the code to accept a R500,000-a-year bribe from Thales in return for political protection in the arms deal investigation.
There would be no De Lille dossier, no encrypted fax and no discounted Mercedes Benz that resulted in Tony Yengeni going to jail. Jacob Zuma would not have been the mysterious “Mr X” in the Scorpions investigation into the arms deal. There would be no damning judgment by Judge Hillary Squires and therefore Zuma would not have been fired by Mbeki. The ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference would have gone differently, Zuma might or might not have been elected ANC president and Mbeki would not have been recalled from office in 2008 because the judgment by Judge Chris Nicholson would not have existed.
The coalition of the wounded in the alliance might not have assembled around Zuma and there is even a chance that Julius Malema might not have been elected president of the ANC Youth League. Malema needed to take over what Fikile Mbalula started, running the attack force to protect Zuma. If Malema had not become a firebrand and later expelled from the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters would not exist now.
Who knows where destiny might have led our country but the arms deal brought us here. Perhaps Zuma might still have become president, and a bad one at that. The state might still have upgraded Zuma’s home at Nkandla and he might still have claimed not to know what happened and ignored the remedial action in the Public Protector’s report, thereby violating the Constitution. Zuma might still have befriended the Gupta family – theirs is a friendship that does appear to have been written in the stars – and yielded control of state affairs to them.
But without the arms deal having violated the trust compact between the nation and the state that serves it, South Africans might feel less scandal-fatigued and helpless due to the consistent lack of accountability. Perhaps we might not have waited two years for ministers and the ANC caucus to lead us through a farcical process to prevent Zuma from paying back the money for Nkandla. Perhaps we might not have been so passive in accepting the firing of Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister and Zuma placing our economy in jeopardy.
As things stand, however, Zuma released the report of the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the arms deal to a nation so battered by scandal and bad leadership that it landed as yet another defeat of accountability. The presidency gave no advance warning that the much-anticipated report of the commission led by Judge Willie Seriti would be released on Thursday. The saga hung over government and the ANC for 17 years and the commission set up to investigate the deal cost the taxpayer R110 million.
Yet Zuma simply read a summary of the findings in a live broadcast to the nation and walked away. And with that, this chapter is meant to be closed.
The commission concluded that the arms procurement was necessary, above board and that there had been no undue benefit or influence in the process. There were two major loopholes that allowed Seriti and Judge Hendrik Thekiso Musi to make the conclusions they did. They focused on the primary contracts in the acquisition and therefore did not delve into the subcontracts that led to the Shaik and Yengeni convictions. Secondly, they relied on evidence presented before them rather than conducting a proper scrutiny of the documentation.
In a global arms industry defined by illicit dealings, the 737-page report of the Seriti Commission paints a picture of a pure and unsoiled process in South Africa’s Strategic Defence Procurement Package (SDPP). The report states:
“In our view, the process followed in the SDPP from its inception up to Cabinet approval of the preferred bidders, was a fair and rational process. The decisions of the Cabinet were strategic in nature and policy-laden”.
In his summary of the findings, Zuma said:
“On whether any contract concluded through the procurement process is tainted by any fraud or corruption, the Commission states that the widespread allegations of bribery, corruption and fraud in the arms procurement process, especially in relation to the selection of the preferred bidders and costs, have found no support or corroboration in the evidence, oral or documentary, placed before the Commission.”
“The Commission points out that the large payments made to consultants gave an impression that the money may have been destined to decision makers in the arms procurement process and that they may have been bribed. The fact that some of the consultants knew or had personal contact with some of the senior politicians in the government of the day, was cited as corroboration,” Zuma said.
“On this point, the Commission states that not a single iota of evidence was placed before it, showing that any of the money received by any of the consultants was paid to any officials involved in the Strategic Defence Procurement Package, let alone any of the members of the Inter-Ministerial Committee that oversaw the process, or any member of the Cabinet that took the final decisions, nor is there any circumstantial evidence pointing to this,” the president said.
Of course the “personal contact” between Thetard and Zuma still remains untested but neither the commission nor the president made mention of this.
The commission said any suggestion that the arms deal should be subject to further investigation was “untenable”.
“Various agencies investigated the possible criminal conduct of some of the role players in the SDPP, and no evidence was found to justify any criminal prosecution. There is no need to appoint another body to investigate the allegations of criminal conduct, as no credible evidence was found during our investigations or presented to the Commission that could sustain any criminal conviction… No evidence of criminal conduct on the part of any person was found,” the report states.
“Given that 18 years have elapsed since the launch of the SDPP and 15 years have passed since the award of the primary contracts, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to unearth evidence, if any, that may sustain any criminal prosecution at this late stage.”
“Furthermore, similar investigations were carried out in other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, and all were closed several years ago without any criminal prosecution being instituted against anybody. In the premises, another investigation into the SDPP will serve no purpose,” the judges went on to say.
With regard to the process being tainted, thereby justifying the cancellation of contracts, the commission states:
“Finally, besides the practical difficulties which would ensue if the contracts concluded pursuant to the SDPP procurement process were cancelled, there is no evidence which suggests that the contracts concluded pursuant to the SDPP procurement process are tainted by fraud or corruption. There is no basis to suggest that the contracts should be cancelled.”
Various opposition parties and anti-arms campaigners vow not to leave the matter there and are exploring ways to take it to the Constitutional Court. Even if the highest court in the land has the final say on the arms deal, the damage has already been done and cannot be undone. The weapons, in various states of use, belong to the state and we will continue to pay for them. The South African government has been tainted by the deal and the trust of the nation eroded.
But more than that, the arms deal sullied our politics and cranked open the doorway to an era of debauchery. Not a single line in the 737 pages of the report can whitewash what happened as a consequence of the arms deal.
It is and always will be the original sin. DM
Photo: South African and ruling African National Congress (ANC) President Thabo Mbeki (L)and ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma (R) arrive for the opening address of the 52nd ANC National Conference at the University of Limpopo in Polokwane, South Africa, 16 December 2007. EPA/JON HRUSA.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine