Well and truly duped

2011-12-21 00:00

THERE is a word that does not roll off the tongue easily — obfuscation. It means making something obscure, dark or difficult to understand. Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren in their book on South Africa’s controversial arms deal certainly do an admirable job of defeating the deliberate obfuscation so craftily engineered by the architects of the deal. Hence, the very apt title of their new book: The Devil in the Detail: How the Arms Deal Changed Everything.

President Jacob Zuma has been lauded for setting up the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the arms deal. The success of this inquiry could well rest on its ability to navigate the myriad details around the arms-procurement exercise, and those involved in the commission would do well to read Holden and Van Vuuren’s book.

The story begins with the end of apartheid, which came at the same time as the end of the Cold War. It was a time of relative peace and arms dealers suddenly found themselves without markets and drastic cuts in their mega profits.

If ever you want to understand the murky world of arms dealers a book well worth reading is Anthony Sampson’s The Arms Bazaar, which was published in 1978. The book looks at how subterfuge and corruption took root in the arms trade. A more recent book, reviewed before in this newspaper, is Andrew Feinstein’s, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The merchants were on the lookout for new markets and South Africa no doubt came up on the radar screen. In 1994, the ink was hardly dry on the signing of our new democratic accord when already there was talk of re-equipping the air force and navy. Strangely enough the deal was not just pushed by old South African Defence Force (SADF) types, but by the new order represented by the former head of Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK), Joe Modise. The authors start their book exploring how corrupt forces both within the SADF and MK found each other, and together were able to push through the arms deal.

This is where Holden and Van Vuuren have to be commended for their meticulous research. The arms-procurement process was divided into different packages with different suppliers. Each with a host of sometimes inter-connected sub-contractors, a maze of companies often sharing the same directors and a complex array of agencies through which bribes were paid and offset deals were cut. Offsets are supposed benefits in terms of job creation that the country would get if it picked a particular merchant. Terry Crawford-Browne has described offsets as internationally discredited. He says they are “a scam promoted by the armaments industry with complicity of corrupt politicians, because it disguises the cost of the acquisition to fleece taxpayers”.

Holden and Van Vuuren name key players, a small group who were involved in the manoeuvring and manipulation of a complex array of transactions. Key puppet masters were Modise and Shamin “Chippy” Shaik (the brother of the convicted Schabir Shaik). The authors show how Chippy appeared at all levels of decision-making. They assert that “he provided the space for the manipulation of facts and assertions through the decision-making chain”. In other words, he was one of the masters of obfuscation.

The book shows how most of the offset deals never materialised and an arms deal expected to cost R30 billion ballooned to well over R70 billion. As a country we were well and truly duped, and we are currently paying the price. Through clear graphics and tables, the book shows the socioeconomic cost to the country and how the R70 billion would have been better spent sorting out the country’s unemployment problem, providing better education, houses and land reform.

A question that may be asked is why when it was discovered we were being taken for the ride was the deal not more thoroughly probed?

It turns out that it was not only individuals who got kickbacks. A substantial amount of money went towards filling the depleted coffers of the ANC. Payments, the book shows, were made through an intriguing network of transactions. Perhaps this was why an important part of the entire arms scandal remains the subsequent cover-up. The authors look at the stymied investigations and the auditor-general’s rewritten investigative report. Their conclusion is that the subsequent cover-up and political football played around the arms deal have given rise to the politicisation of prosecution. It has also seen the entrenchment of intelligence community “spooks”, and a culture of secrecy in the country.

Against this background, it is going to be interesting to observe how the Arms Commission unfolds.

• The Devil in the Detail: How the Arms Deal Changed Everything by Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren is published by Jonathan Ball.

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