South Africa

Age of Accountability

Judicial Conduct Committee to probe Zuma-era arms deal commission whitewash by judges

Judge Hendrick Musi and Judge Willie Seriti at the Sammy Marks Conference Centre in Pretoria on 20 August 2013. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Daniel Born)

In the aftermath of a North Gauteng High Court finding, judges Willie Seriti and Hendrick Musi will now have to explain why the Arms Procurement Commission overlooked crucial information prior to making findings in 2016 that the arms deal was clean as a whistle.

On 7 May, Sello Chiloane, secretary of the Judicial Conduct Committee, informed the NGOs, Shadow World Investigations and Open Secrets, that their complaint against Seriti and Musi had been referred by JCC Acting Chair, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, for investigation.

Seriti, a Supreme Court of Appeal judge, and Musi, former Judge President of the Free State High Court, chaired the Arms Procurement Commission, known as the Seriti Commission, for four years at a cost of R130-million.

During that period two shipping containers left at the Hawks premises in Pretoria, containing an eye-watering 4.7 million computer pages and 460 boxes of evidence, remained untouched. 

Neither former president Jacob Zuma nor French arms company Thales – who are both, after almost two decades of legal stalling, about to face charges of fraud and corruption related to the arms deal – were called by Seriti.

The decision by the JSC to probe the judges is another victory for civil society, which has relentlessly demanded accountability in the “original sin” of the country’s democratic era – the 1999 arms deal.

The 2019 North Gauteng High Court ruling setting aside the 2016 findings of the Seriti Commission was a direct result of an application by Corruption Watch and Right2Know, which argued that the commission had misled the public in its findings.

In that instance, Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo excoriated Seriti for failing to hold those responsible for the arms deal accountable, labelling the entire process a “manifest failure”. 

Shadow World Investigations and Open Secrets lodged the complaint with the JSC in 2020 after the findings of the North Gauteng High Court. Chiloane informed both organisations that the tribunal would sit on Saturday, 12 June.

The complaint requested the JCC to consider whether certain actions by Seriti and Musi may constitute criminal misconduct, “and, if so, to refer these matters to the NPA for further action”.

“The organisations lodged this complaint to bolster public trust in the integrity of the Judiciary and send a strong signal that the kind of conduct that enabled a cover-up of serious crimes by the Seriti Commission should not be tolerated,” said Paul Holden of Shadow World Investigations and Hennie van Vuuren of Open Secrets in a joint statement.

The R142-billion (calculated in current value) arms deal had resulted in “enormous social damage in South Africa – resulting in the loss of up to one million jobs – and enriched a small group of powerful European corporations, politicians and middlemen”.

The decision by the JSC was, said both organisations, a “major step” in the process towards accountability in South Africa.

“This first step towards accountability is a further vindication of civil society’s efforts to expose cover-ups at the Seriti Commission – and the decision by civil society activists to withdraw as witnesses from the Commission,” said Shadow World Investigations and Open Secrets.

The JSC informed both organisations that at this stage it had taken into account “only your version”, which is in keeping with the JSC Act.

Seriti and Musi are only required to respond after the chairperson has made a decision to refer the complaint to the committee and these will be considered at a later stage.

At the meeting on 13 June the committee will consider whether the complaint, if established, would prove “incapacity, gross incompetence or gross misconduct” by the judges.

The judges will either face a Section 17 (2) inquiry or recommend to the commission that it should be investigated and reported on by a Tribunal. DM

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All Comments 9

  • Shadow World Investigations and Open Secrets, thank you very much. In South Africa the wheels of justice turn in super slow motion. May they keep on turning nevertheless. Two million jobs lost. Two million families condemned to poverty – a crime against the citizens of South Africa.

  • Thank you to all these people who are quietly persisting in their quest to bring the truth to light; we are truly blessed that after so many years of disappointment you are still able to keep going – and now, it seems the fruits of your long labours are about to start coming in. Congratulations!

  • NO ONE – including a judge – is above the law…that is the expression ! This may yet prove the point . Seen against the background of Judge in the US having called into question Trump’s favourite lap-dog AG, Barr’s report on the Muller investigation… it seems the law may actually work at times !

  • You want the 1999 deals? Follow the star – the Star Trust owns Nkobi Holdings. The Shaik brothers and Luthuli House are mines of information. It’s all there – just needs the right search warrants.

  • “incapacity, gross incompetence or gross misconduct” – if that is the test, there must be a couple of uncomfortable judges in South Africa!