ANALYSIS: Arms deal judgment unlikely to reopen Mbeki-era prosecutions

2019-08-21 14:08
Former president Jacob Zuma looks on in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg during his trial for alleged corruption in the Arms Deal.

Former president Jacob Zuma looks on in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg during his trial for alleged corruption in the Arms Deal. ((Themba Hadebe / POOL / AFP))

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Somewhere in Pretoria, under a tree at the National Prosecuting Authority's (NPA) head office, stands a shipping container filled to the brim with documents implicating politicians, businessmen and civil servants in corruption.

The corruption relates to what we today call the "arms deal" – a transaction of about R70bn between the ANC-led South African government and several European armaments manufacturers concluded in the late 1990s to purchase warships, fighter jets, submarines and helicopters for the defence force.

If you go to Simon's Town in the Western Cape, you will see some of the warships and submarines; unused, ageing and redundant. The jets are used once a year to provide pomp to the State of the Nation ceremony at Parliament.

The arms deal is the original sin that poisoned the well; of the ANC and of South Africa. It was the moment the struggle for justice and equality lost its moral compass and comrades traded their consciences for Mercedes-Benzes.

We are haunted by the unfinished business of the arms deal, two decades after former president Thabo Mbeki and several of his ministers, including Joe Modise, Trevor Manuel and Alec Erwin, signed off on the single largest expenditure in the country's history at the time.

On Wednesday, Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo reopened the chapter when he set aside the findings of Judge Willie Seriti, recently retired from the Supreme Court of Appeal. Seriti found no corruption in the transaction, despite the fact that Schabir Shaik and Tony Yengeni had already been convicted on charges relating to the arms deal.

And there was much more. That shipping container, built up by the now-defunct Scorpions over years, contains documents about millions of rands flowing to the ANC, middlemen like Fana Hlongwane and Tony Georgiades, and Chippy Shaik, head of procurement at the time of the transaction.

It is now safe to say that Seriti's inquiry was a whitewash and probably designed to be that way from the start, when former president Jacob Zuma – who himself benefited from a R500 000 bribe paid to him by French arms company Thales via Shaik – appointed Seriti.

Compared to the gravitas and level of questioning on display at the Zondo commission, Seriti's was a sweetheart inquiry with no intention to get to the depths of the arms deal rot.

It is impossible to imagine him escaping untainted from this.

Mlambo had harsh words for the commission: witnesses weren't properly questioned, key players weren't confronted and Seriti and his commission ignored findings by foreign agencies in Germany and the United Kingdom.

Of course, it suited all sides of the ANC very well to let the arms deal slip, because pretty much every faction you can think of and the party itself was implicated.

That possibly explains why the Mbeki faction didn't fight terribly hard against the dissolution of the Scorpions after Zuma's election as ANC president at Polokwane in 2007. It suited both camps to bury the arms deal and shut the shipping container's doors.

Mlambo has now reopened the case and, by extension, the shipping containers at the NPA, now headed by Advocate Shamila Batohi, who has enough work of her own to give attention to 20-year-old files.

I doubt whether the Hawks or the NPA will invigorate some of the forgotten arms deal prosecutions. We have moved on to the next big chapter of grand corruption called state capture and the country is waiting anxiously for Batohi to make her first move.

But what Mlambo's judgment has done is to remove the whitewashing of history by a commission that was never set up to find the truth.

Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  seriti commission  |  arms deal
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