Arms deal: Zuma, Mbeki set to testify

2011-10-28 10:05

Former president Thabo Mbeki, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota as well as brothers Chippy and Schabir Shaik may be the first to appear before the judicial commission appointed by President Jacob Zuma to investigate the multibillion-dollar arms deal that has cast a shadow over the ANC-led government since 1998.

Zuma himself could be called to testify, as Justice Minister Jeff Radebe explained yesterday: “They have the power to subpoena anybody, including members of the executive … who can bring light to this issue.”

Informed sources also said Alec Erwin, the former public enterprises minister; and Tony Yengeni, the ANC’s former chief whip, are key witnesses who could shed more light on the infamous transaction.

Radebe said the commission, led by Appeal Court Judge Willie Seriti, would have sweeping powers.

No place to hide

“The regulations, among others, give the commission the power to subpoena witnesses, compel witnesses to answer questions, and the power of search and seizure,” said Radebe.

Analysts said Zuma left no place to hide for anyone involved in the weapons deal.“The brief is so clear and inclusive that one cannot improve on it; it is heartening,” said Professor Marinus Wiechers, a constitutional expert and former rector at Unisa.

The commission has the mandate to subpoena anybody, including members of the executive and the current and former presidents.

Mbeki served on the Cabinet committee that recommended to Parliament to buy the expensive fighter jets, ships and submarines.

“He was a key figure and would know everything about the approvals and preparations. Manuel is another key witness,” said former Judge Willem Heath, who investigated the arms deal in 2001.

Manuel signed off the loan contracts for the deal.Terry Crawford-Browne, who submitted an application to the Constitutional Court to compel Zuma to appoint a commission of inquiry, said Manuel had a clear hand in the transaction.

Cooperation Dumisa Jele, Manuel’s spokesperson, said on inquiry that a judicial commission demands everyone’s cooperation.

“It is not optional. He [Manuel] was minister of finance at that time and it [the procurement of the arms] was a collective decision [by Cabinet],” said Jele.

Cope leader Lekota will also be an important witness in his former capacity as the ANC’s minister of defence. “I have nothing to hide and will cooperate,” he said.

Heath and Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP and critic, said Chippy Shaik – former head of weapons procurement at the defence department – also has a lot to answer for.

His brother, Schabir, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 2005 for his involvement in bribery related to the arms deal.Yengeni, also an ANC MP, was found guilty in 2004 of fraud and corruption relating to the scandal.

Radebe described the commission as a watershed moment for South Africa. Contracts may be cancelled Advocate Paul Hoffman, Crawford-Browne’s legal adviser, said the inquiry could lead to some of the contracts being cancelled and that the Treasury could win back up to R70 billion.

This includes interest and changes in exchange rates. The deal was initially budgeted at R47 billion. In his proposed remedies on the arms deal scandal which Crawford-Browne sent to Themba Godi, the chair of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in August 2010, he writes: “In terms of the bribery clauses outlined in section 5, the government has the option to cancel these contracts and to claim compensation.

“The affidavits regarding bribes of £115 million paid by BAE to secure these contracts are unambiguous, and the recipients of these bribes must be prosecuted.

“These contracts are underwritten by the British government’s Export Credit Guarantee Department. “The financial consequences flowing from cancellation of the BAE contracts would therefore fall to British rather than South African taxpayers.”

Mbeki’s spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga said Mbeki has not yet seen the commission’s terms of reference and has not yet been asked to testify.

Radebe said the inquiry is not limited to South Africa, suggesting further scrutiny of European defence companies, including Swedish group Saab and Britain’s BAE Systems, which sold submarines, jets and other military hardware to South Africa in the late 1990s.

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