Allegations need answers

2008-08-05 00:00

WHEN a decade ago the South African National Defence Review said that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) needed to be re-equipped to meet the needs of the new democracy, this newspaper was sympathetic to the general proposal. The Witness was particularly supportive of the case for the South African navy which had been the Cinderella of the services and starved of resources by successive Nationalist governments for half a century. While South Africa faces no immediate maritime threat, the country has an exceptionally long coastline and requires ships to protect its fishing resources. Whether the most suitable vessels were purchased is, however, now a matter of debate.

The “arms deal” signed in 1999, totalling R30 billion at that time, has been a burden to taxpayers ever since. It has also become a sore in the body politic as endless allegations of corruption have surfaced, while the authorities have obdurately refused to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.

At the weekend a staggering new allegation was published by a Sunday newspaper: that a German shipbuilding company paid President Thabo Mbeki R30 million to guarantee that it won the submarine contract. Mbeki allegedly gave R2 million of this to Jacob Zuma and the remaining R28 million to the African National Congress (ANC).

While the paper devoted its own resources to the story for six months, it was drawing on a secret report compiled last year by a United Kingdom specialist risk consultancy which was commissioned to investigate the worldwide activities and questionable business practices of Man Ferrostaal (which won the contract to supply three submarines to South Africa). Man Ferrostaal promised a reciprocal deal to build a stainless steel mill at Coega, an offset project which a feasibility study warned as being being risky and likely to fail, and which has done so.

These are extremely serious allegations, but so far they have been simply shrugged off by the presidency and Mbeki himself. That’s not good enough. If they are a newspaper calumny, then surely the paper should be sued for libel. It has not been, so they probably have at least a basis of truth. A newspaper is unlikely to risk major financial damage by making such claims were it not sure of its ground. In that case, there should be a judicial inquiry as the only way to put the matter to rest.

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