Thabo Mbeki unshaken

2014-07-20 15:00

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Former president largely unfazed during testimony at the Seriti Commission

Former president Thabo Mbeki was more than 30?minutes early for his appearance at the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the multibillion-rand arms deal.

Mbeki, who headed the interministerial committee that decided the contracts, arrived to  a gallery of commissioners, journalists, lawyers and ordinary citizens eagerly awaiting the spectacle to come.

How, they wondered, would he respond to a barrage of questions about his role in the deal, and about shady deals signed by his colleagues?

Mbeki did not come alone.

Flanked by members of his Cabinet – former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, trade and industry’s Alec Erwin and finance’s Trevor Manuel, who had all testified before the commission since February.

His old director-general, the Reverend Frank Chikane, though never a witness, came too and sat right behind his old boss.

If any of them smiled, it was not for long.

Poised and resolute, Mbeki’s demeanour contrasted sharply with the man who tried to rattle him, Advocate Paul Hoffman, acting for veteran arms deal opponent Terry Crawford-Browne.

Mbeki responded to Hoffman’s “condescending” questions by giving nothing away and providing nothing new.

His unwavering response: His government was guided by the Constitution and his colleagues did not put a foot wrong as far as he was concerned.

Mbeki’s cousin and lawyer, Advocate Marumo Moerane, and long-time legal adviser Mojanku Gumbi acted as gatekeepers to “unnecessary and unhelpful” questions, curtly calling Hoffman to order, asking chairperson Judge Willie Seriti to rein him in.

Mbeki and his colleagues appeared miffed about being put under the microscope for decisions they took while in office.

He pleaded with his accusers to provide evidence that he and his colleagues mismanaged the process: “Please produce something which would justify this commission.”

On Friday, Mbeki sidestepped questions posed by Lawyers for Human Rights advocate Anna-Marie de Vos, leaving her sighing audibly into the microphone. He remained resolute, answering after clearing his throat, leaning back in his chair, and linking his fingers.

It was only at the end of the day when De Vos played her trump card that Mbeki’s composure cracked slightly.

Asked how he could insist the arms deal was rational when his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, said the country could not afford antiretroviral drugs, Mbeki responded that antiretrovirals were very expensive then and he could not discuss isolated matters of government budget policy.

And when De Vos quoted figures estimating HIV/Aids caused 7.4?million more South Africans to die between 1995 and 2015, Mbeki’s cool slipped a little.

“Chair, I really don’t want to come back to this discussion. The advocate?... sometimes does not listen. She has her own conversations,” he smiled.

Asked for his final remarks, Mbeki recalled his 2001 letter in defence of the arms deal in ANC Today, branding arms deal critics “fishers of corrupt men”.

He wrote: “At the base of all this lies the racist conviction that Africans, who now govern our country, are naturally prone to corruption, venality and mismanagement.”

On Friday, he said: “There’s a reason?...?people can go banging drums about allegations?...?I think I know why, I know exactly why these allegations have been able to have as long a life as they have.”

Arms deal: Mbeki vs what we know

1. Commissions or bribes?

Thabo Mbeki: “The mere fact of paying a commission to somebody who is commissioned is not a bribe to that person, it becomes a bribe when the person who is the decision maker is bought?...?as I understand it, normally that kind of commission is not hidden necessarily because it is not illegal...”

What we know: If these commissions were legal, why did arms company British Aerospace (BAE) Systems hide them? In a plea agreement with the US State Department in 2011, BAE Systems admitted that the “company or its representative Red Diamond made payments to brokers involved in securing the sale to South Africa. [BAE] failed to disclose payments as required...”

The lead Scorpions investigator into the arms deal later wrote in an affidavit that Fana Hlongwane, special adviser to then defence minister Joe Modise, ­received payments from Red Diamond in “suspicious ways”.

2. Where’s the evidence?

Mbeki: “You have somebody who makes this allegation, all manner of corruption has taken place. Everybody, certainly during the time I was in government, wanted to act on this, [we] kept hoping people who make allegations will produce evidence.”

What we know: Last year, the Mail & Guardian published part of a 2007 letter from former national director of public prosecutions Mokotedi Mpshe to Mbeki’s former justice minister Brigitte Mabandla. Mpshe was ­responsible for the Scorpions, which ­investigated the arms deal.

“In my opinion, the failure by any South African investigating agency to ­investigate the reported allegations of grave criminality committed in our country?...?is becoming ever more embarrassing,” wrote Mpshe.

“The apparently damning evidence at the disposal of the German authorities [investigating corruption in their country] cries out for investigation. The failure to do so is indefensible.”

In August, City Press revealed that 4.7?million pages of documentary evidence about the deal, collected by the Scorpions, was gathering dust at the Hawks headquarters in Silverton, Pretoria.

3. Was the state careful with taxpayers’ money?

Mbeki: “As to the matter of costs, no decisions were taken by [the interministerial committee] or Cabinet which excluded costs. None. Indeed, the whole procurement was discussed in the context of what the other national challenges are.”

What we know: Advocate Anna-Marie de Vos, cross-examining Mbeki, asked why the Hawk fighter-trainer aircraft was picked over the Aermacchi MB-339 if costs were always considered. The Hawk cost R2.6?billion more. Former defence secretary General Pierre Steyn wanted to exclude the Hawk from bidding because of the cost, but was overruled by Modise, who said the “political decision needed must not revolve around operational aspects of the aircraft”.?–?Charl du Plessis

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