Scandal without end

2008-12-10 00:00

The “serialised scandal” has become a new phenomenon in our public life. Every week in either the Mail & Guardian or the Sunday Times we are treated to a gripping new episode in the ongoing saga of the arms deal.

For the past 10 years, ever since the South African government first announced that it was going to buy 28 BAE-SAAB Gripen jet fighters from Sweden for R10 875 billion, or R388-million per plane, we have been presented with these regular weekend bulletins disclosing new details of the biggest corruption scandal in our country’s history.

From the moment Patricia de Lille first revealed that something fishy was afoot, even before the Strategic Defence Procurement Programme was signed in 1999, we have had these regular reports of who received how much in kickbacks and how the money was laundered through which intricate networks of international accounts.

We have followed the trail as the total cost of the whole wretched deal has mounted, the subcontracts added and the rand devaluation calculated, to reach the staggering sum of R47 billion, plus billions more in interest — with the so-called “commissions” where the bribes are said to have been hidden reaching an equally astonishing R2 billion at today’s exchange rates.

We know it all, thanks to the diligence and sustained energy of what must surely be the most remarkable example of investigative journalism ever undertaken in this country. We know who the crooks are. We know who paid and who received bribes. We know just about everything of how it was done. But this time the revelation of all these wrongdoings is not leading, as we journalists always believed would happen, to investigation, exposure and ultimately justice.

No, this time it simply moves on, endlessly, as in soapies like Isidingo and Egoli and Dallas, to a new series of weekly disclosures of more skullduggery, filled in each time with a little background about all the malfeasance that has gone before, but still not leading to any finite point. Never a conclusion. No charge. No trial. No judgment. No closure. A scandal without end.

It didn’t use to be like this. In older, uglier times when we lived under a system that constituted a crime against humanity, things were paradoxically a lot simpler. We knew who the good guys were then and who George W. Bush would have called “the evil doers”. Moral judgments were a whole lot easier in those days.

However cynically we look to our benighted past, there was a clarity of vision then that we have lost today. The great crusade against the evil of apartheid is over and we are now in the uncharted waters where the distinctions between opportunity and greed, between entitlement and avarice, recompense and reprisal, are more difficult to distinguish.

And between crime and punishment. Think back to the great “information scandal”. Muldergate. A puny affair in moral and monetary terms compared with the arms deal, but it brought down the Vorster government. John Vorster, he of the 90-day and 180-day detention laws, the creator of the South African Bureau of State Security (Boss) and the condoner of torture, the most feared man of his time, was kicked upstairs into a ceremonial presidency while his two cohorts, Connie Mulder and Eschel Rhoodie, were dismissed into obscurity. There was justice and closure in those evil times.

Even we journalists who did the exposing in a brisk two years, a third of the time that the arms deal has been in the news, had our moments of glory. The investigative journalists, Mervyn Rees, Chris Day and Kitt Katzen, were acclaimed by their peers, while the editors, Rex Gibson of the Sunday Express and myself at the Rand Daily Mail, were flown to New York, fêted at the National Press Club in Washington and crowned joint international editors of the year.

Not so poor Stephanus Brummer and Sam Sole of the Mail & Guardian. They have toiled infinitely longer, written thousands more words and dug a great deal deeper than any of our lot did. But there has been no reward, no acclamation for them. Because there has been no end to their story. No vindication. Nor will there be. This serial will go on forever. Or at least until Jesus comes again.

Their only solace is that it will provide them with lifelong careers. For the arms deal has become an industry. Our one growth industry in these hard times. It has already produced two books and sold millions of newspapers, and doubtless more will follow.

Now our Nobel laureates, Desmond Tutu and F. W. de Klerk, joined by the redoubtable Helen Suzman, have called for a commission of inquiry. So has Judge Chris Nicholson, who warned in his momentous judgment that without such an investigation those who governed this country would have to do so “under an ever present cloud of suspicion and scandal”.

Voices of moral authority, all. But they will be ignored. There will be no commission of inquiry because only the president can appoint one and President Kgalema Motlanthe dare not do so. He was not elected by the people of South Africa but was “deployed” to the job by the leadership of the African National Congress, which means that if he displeases that leadership they can “recall” him as they did Thabo Mbeki.

After Motlanthe will come president Jacob Zuma, and he certainly won’t appoint a commission of inquiry. Whoever heard of a president ordering an investigation into himself? So there will be no conclusion. No verdict. No closure.

So the scandal will continue indefinitely, each week producing another episode with another chunk of regurgitated background to corrode our national morality with a steady drip-irrigation of turpitude. Zuma himself certainly cannot end it. If the Nicholson judgment is overturned on appeal on January 12, he may have to go into the election as “the accused”. And win, to become president. “The Honourable Accused”.

What an appellation to carry into the world as the first citizen of our country, the upholder of our Constitution and our national honour. But there is nothing he will be able to do about it, no way he can protect himself from the whispers and taunts that are likely to follow wherever he goes. For — and I wonder whether the deployed leaders of the ANC have thought about this — he will never be able to sue anyone who challenges him about his involvement in the arms deal.

Having spent all these years fighting to keep out of court with his “Stalingrad strategy”, Zuma surely cannot go there of his own volition, to have all that stuff in those 93 000 seized documents and in Sole’s and Brummer’s millions of column centimetres produced in a case of his own instigation.

So I’m afraid that our next president will have to go into the world naked. Defenceless. A tortoise without a shell. A man with a history that he cannot shake off and cannot defend himself against and cannot bring to closure. Who will have to live and rule under Nicholson’s ever present cloud of suspicion and scandal.

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