Arms shouldn’t give legs to graft

2014-07-29 13:45

The man on the other side of the table guffawed loudly and shook his head.

“Nobody will ever find anything. Nobody will ever prove anything,” said the man, his laughter and headshake now making me feel like an imbecile.

It was about 10 years ago and we were discussing the arms deal. I was making a case for a judicial commission of inquiry into corruption in the multibillion-rand acquisition.

The man, a senior figure in government and the ANC, was certain that senior people and the governing party had benefited improperly during the adjudication process.

It was an open secret in ANC ranks that individuals had enriched themselves through corrupt relationships with arms dealers. The beneficiaries were well known in senior party circles, he said.

But he was equally confident nobody would ever get to the bottom of the corruption no matter how much journalists, opposition parties and anti-arms deal activists screamed.

Arms manufacturers had been doing this thing for ages and had perfected the art of corrupting governments. So the idea that a judicial commission of inquiry would unravel the truth was just preposterous, he said dismissively.

I hate to admit today that the man could have been right. Having followed the goings-on at the Seriti Commission of Inquiry, the man’s scepticism is making sense.

Although it might be contempt of the commission to pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry, I think one can safely say the corruption deniers have the edge at this point.

Not because the accusers have not put up a convincing argument, there is just very little in the way of paper trails, smoking guns and whatever other journalistic clichés we can use in this regard.

What we have from the accusers at this point is reasonable suspicion, the illogicality of the spend and the say-so of unnamed sources.

The deniers have presented scientific needs analyses that justified the expenditure, argued about the integrity of the process and have cheekily invited the accusers to land the sucker punch.

When the commission nears its end, we can expect some sour grapes talk from the accusers, who will tell us the terms of reference were flawed and that they did not get adequate access to documentation.

They will dismiss the commission as a cover-up and a final attempt by the authorities to shut up critics.

But this will be a short-sighted approach to the usefulness of this commission. It has been a very valuable exercise, a feather in the cap of our good republic.

It has spoken volumes about the quality of our democracy and reaffirmed the belief that despite our many flaws, this country of ours is still a trailblazer in many respects.

Think about it. Last week, we had former president Thabo Mbeki being subjected to two days of cross-examination about his role in the arms deal. Yes, he did not say much beyond “I cannot recall” and “there is absolutely no evidence of bribery” and “we’ve been waiting for concrete facts”, but the fact is that he was there.

Before him, the former ministers of finance, defence and trade and industry were grilled by lawyers. Generals, admirals and air force chiefs have also been in the hot seat.

There are very few countries in the world – including, and perhaps especially, in the developed world – where arms procurement has been subjected to such close scrutiny.

In fact, one of Tony Blair’s last acts as Britain’s prime minister in 2007 was to shut down an investigation by the elite Serious Fraud Office into how BAE Systems had bribed Saudi officials to secure a £43?billion arms contract during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure.

He justified his decision on the basis that the probe would have “involved serious allegations and investigations going ahead on the Saudi royal family”, would have led to “the complete wreckage of a vital relationship” and “cost thousands and thousands of British jobs”. And that was that. The probe was shut down by edict.

Some ANC leaders and government officials love using Blair’s action as proof of the foolishness of those who demand answers on the arms deal.

They aver that it is not in the national interest to interrogate the transaction. On this matter, the “imperialist” and “colonialist” Britain is to be emulated.

Fortunately, few have bought this argument. South Africans have persisted with demands for transparency. The Seriti commission is a watered-down accession to these demands, leading many to dismiss it as a damp squib and a waste of time.

This is wrong. It may not unearth corruption, but it has been a major step forward.

It is now up to us to take lessons from this process to set standards on how big transactions should and should not be conducted.

We should closely study the Seriti commission, the competition commission’s probe into collusion in the construction industry and other similar processes to gain an understanding of public and private sector corruption.

These lessons should then be used to tighten systems through laws, regulations and the strengthening of existing institutions.

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