South Africa

Op-Ed: The People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime – holding power to account

By Open Secrets 6 February 2018

In the face of slow moving state institutions, politically compromised investigative agencies, and obstructive politicians, South African citizens are exercising their power to challenge the corrupt directly. The first hearings of the People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime in South Africa commenced on Saturday 3 February at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Running until 7 February, the tribunal is a statement: We will no longer wait in vain for state action. We will gather, hear and publicise the evidence of economic crimes from South Africa’s past and present. By OPEN SECRETS.

The People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime in South Africa draws on a powerful history of People’s Tribunals around the world. These have been used by civil society to address human rights violations where the state has failed to demand accountability. They include investigations into the Vietnam War, abuses in Palestine, and genocide in Indonesia.

Drawing on these models, a coalition of civil society organisations including Open Secrets, Corruption Watch, the Public Affairs Research Institute, the Right2Know Campaign and the Foundation for Human Rights has come together to create the People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime in South Africa. What’s unique about this Tribunal is that it’s the first of its kind anywhere in the world to explicitly set out to hear allegations of economic crime and corruption. This is one area where state institutions have notoriously failed South Africans, and the demand for accountability for these crimes remains one of the most urgent matters on the country’s agenda.

This challenge is one that has dogged the country for decades. We fundamentally failed to hold apartheid’s corporate accomplices accountable for their role in supporting that regime. That network of corporations, bankers, spies and middlemen profited significantly off apartheid’s shadow economy. They did so while propping up a crime against humanity.

Failing to hold these actors to account allowed that network to survive, morph and to continue profiting from deals with a new political elite in the post-apartheid Arms Deal. The consequences of that deal in undermining the democratic process and corrupting our politicians has had ripple effects that continue to reverberate. In fact, nearly two decades later, yesterday was the deadline for President Jacob Zuma to make representations to the NPA on why he should not be indicted on 783 counts of corruption and fraud. All counts relate to the Arms Deal.

The actors implicated in past crimes have dedicated much of their resources to undermine the institutions of state tasked with investigating and prosecuting economic crime and corruption. It is in this context that those parties implicated in the allegations related to State Capture have been able act with apparent impunity for so long. Only in the last month has there been an indication that state institutions such as the NPA and Asset Forfeiture Units may pursue these crimes.

It is important to support these state led processes and advocate strongly for full prosecution wherever possible. They are crucial to break the thread of impunity, and to disturb corrupt networks. It is also important to note the limitations of such processes. Yet they often preclude more fundamental questions, including the inter-connected nature of these crimes across time. Importantly, they also gloss over the human cost of these types of so-called “white-collar” crimes.

The People’s Tribunal offers an action-based alternative that can address aspects of these concerns, and join these dots in a way that formal legalistic processes cannot achieve. Over five days, at least 15 witnesses and whistle-blowers, as well as a dozen representatives of social movements and NGOs will provide their testimony to a panel of five esteemed adjudicators. They will address the hard evidence related to allegations of crimes from the late apartheid period, the Arms Deal, and contemporary state capture. Focusing on the arms sector, they will tell a story of the economic crimes committed by the powerful over more than four decades at the expense of marginalised South Africans.

Throughout South Africa’s history, in the face of the crimes of the powerful and the intransigence of the state, there has been a bulwark of whistle-blowers, activists, journalists and investigators who have dedicated their time to challenging this impunity. It is this rich history that will be documented in an exhibition running in conjunction with the tribunal and curated by the South African History Archive. While the exhibition sets to preserve this history where are the Tribunal strives to make it. The hearings aim to provide a space for these people and the evidence at their disposal to be heard. A public record of what we know about these crimes will be made, both fulfilling our right to know, and providing a springboard for the struggle for accountability.

It is the latter point that is the guiding goal of the tribunal. It is true that the tribunal will not have formal juristic power and thus cannot directly hold any actors to account. However, its power lies in its ability to generate an evidence-based public record of these crimes. The value in having such a record lies in the fact that citizens can use it to hold other processes to account, and to demand accountability.

Commissions of Inquiry cannot pull the wool over our eyes by alleging there is no evidence if we have already recorded that evidence. It is a way of saying to the powerful: “We know, and we will not let you get away with it.”

The task of compiling the final report, including recommendations for further steps where appropriate, falls to an impressive panel of adjudicators. Made up of jurists and activists, the panel of five bring experience of presiding over similar processes, and all have remarkable records of contributing to the struggle for justice and accountability in South Africa and around the world. They include Navi Pillay, Zak Yacoob, Dinga Sikwebu, Mandisa Dyantyi and Allyson Maynard Gibson. You can read about the panel in more detail here.

Ultimately, the first People’s Tribunal is an opportunity to reclaim the power of the people in the face of endemic economic crime in South Africa. Through these hearings, we will shine a light and challenge the secrecy in which corrupt networks thrive.

The tribunal will be a space for sharing information and stories. It will be a place for citizens to reclaim the inherent power in that. DM

Photo: A Swedish air force Saab Gripen multitask fighter plane performs over the Waterkloof airforce base in South Africa in this November 1, 1998 file photo. REUTERS/Peter Andrews

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