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The arms deal changed everything. It vulgarised our politics and made us so cynical that it is normal now for corruption to go unpunished, writes Sarah Evans.
On the day that President Jacob Zuma announced that the commission of inquiry into the arms deal had found no evidence of corruption researcher Paul Holden felt sick. A little while later, just before his media interviews started, Holden went to the bathroom and vomited.
Years of research undertaken, books written and campaigning in the pursuit of justice seemed lost. He told News24 that the Seriti commission was "one of the most brutal, upsetting and depressing things I've ever endured".
Any chance of accountability for those complicit in the corruption orgy that was the arms deal, seemed finished. But Holden and his associates have not given up, and together with Corruption Watch, they are taking the commission's final report – which they call a white wash – on judicial review.
In these cynical times, we need heroes.
It is difficult to resurrect the public's interest in something that seems so far behind us; so complex yet so mundane. So few of the characters seem relevant anymore. No one would bat an eyelid if Schabir Shaik was accused of fraud again, and who even remembers his brother, Chippy? Joe Modise and Stella Sicgau are dead, and the name Fana Hlongwana seems important at times although no one can quite remember why.
What about BAE fixer Richard Charter? Red Diamond trading was used to funnel millions in bribes offshore. But do any of these names ring a bell? Does anyone remember Alec Erwin? And what of Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel and their part in allegedly approving a dodgy arms deal? Could we stomach a blemish on the reputations of these elders from the supposed golden years of pre-Zuma bliss?
More importantly: so what? What does it all matter now?
READ: 4 pieces of evidence the arms deal commission 'ignored' - court papers
In these post-Gupta years, everything seems to pale in comparison to the devastation of our public institutions, the corruption of our politics and the betrayal by our public servants wrought by state capture. The sale of our country to a family currently fending off the heat of the Dubai sun with their designer sunglasses and their network of sycophants seem infinitely more important than the sale of some ships, submarines and war planes, albeit at inflated prices.
Why dredge this up now? Haven't we got bigger problems?
The answer is because the arms deal was our original sin – that which first broke our institutions. It made our country ripe for state capture to fester and grow.
First, there was the corruption of Parliament. The brass on the new doorknobs in Plein Street had barely been polished when that institution, intended to make laws and hold the executive to account, stopped doing its job properly. Patricia de Lille presented her famous dossier containing allegations of corruption in the arms deal which implicated the very top echelons of the ANC to the National Assembly.
The ANC caucus closed ranks and used its majority muscle to water down investigations. ANC MP Andrew Feinstein resigned in protest and went on to campaign against arms deals all over the world.
Brand new Chapter 9 institutions, fresh out of the box and cherished by our new constitutional order as bulwarks against the abuse of power, produced wishy-washy investigative reports. The auditor-general's draft report into corruption in the arms deal revealed that the contracts had gone horribly wrong, but political pressure was brought to bear on that institution, and the final version of a joint investigative team's report showed just how devastating that pressure was.
It would take years before some credibility returned to Parliament's portfolio committees, the auditor-general and public protector's offices.
Then there was the crippling of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the destruction of the Scorpions, and the squeezing of our top forensic investigators.
The Corruption Watch review application shows how the Scorpions had mountains of evidence of wrongdoing – two shipping containers full of documents are just a small part of it – implicating actors at the very highest levels of public life. Again, political pressure and interference stripped law enforcement of its precious independence, and the evidence now lies gathering dust. Most of the evidence seems so irrelevant now, no one has even bothered to destroy it.
The final Scorpions (now Hawks) investigator on the case was Colonel Johan du Plooy, who cut a lone figure at the Seriti commission, and recounted how his investigation was squashed until he was the only investigator working on the last leg of the arms deal corruption cases. It was a task so massive that he could not cope alone, and with all his investigators having been taken off the case, the defeated and depleted cop asked his senior to shut it down. He, in turn, asked former Hawks head Anwa Dramat to close down the probe for good.
The arms deal changed everything. It vulgarised our politics and made us so cynical that it is normal now for corruption to go unpunished. The Seriti commission was the final white washing of this mammoth scandal, long after the millions of rands in bribes had settled into offshore bank accounts to grow interest into perpetuity.
But the stench of corruption stubbornly remains. There are serious allegations that the commission ignored evidence of wrongdoing that will now be tested in court.
On that day in 2013, on which Holden's nausea got the better of him, Zuma himself facing charges relating to the arms deal, looked the nation straight in the face and said there was no corruption to be found. The matter had now been exhaustively investigated and we should all move on, was the message.
The truth is that in the grand scheme of that arms deal, Zuma was a small fry. The payments he allegedly received to protect Thales from future investigations are small change compared to the millions funnelled through complex webs of offshore accounts and shell companies to other decision makers. There are others, far richer, and far more dangerous for democracy, who have never set foot in court.
The news cycle moves quickly, especially in the age of digital media; people move on and forget. Newsrooms are smaller and sources have died or no longer care. There is little time or appetite to revive last week's scandals, let alone a story that is literally as old as our democracy itself.
ALSO READ: Arms deal lawyer dishes more dirt
It has fallen to a small group of researchers to keep the issue alive. Corruption Watch, Holden, Hennie van Vuuren, Feinstein, and their colleagues will return to court next year. The case will kick off with a fluster of public interest that will no doubt wane as the exhausting complexity of the arms deal becomes apparent, again.
They will be called names, again. Politicians will dismiss them, again. It would not be surprising if Mbeki writes another one of his missives in defence of the arms deal.
But it is not just the accountability of those involved in the deal which must be pursued; it is the rescuing of our public institutions that must be sought. When a commission of inquiry is announced, we should sit up and take note, not roll our eyeballs in anticipation of another snooze-fest. We need to have faith in our public institutions if our mechanisms of accountability are to be effective.
This is also bigger than us. The arms trade around the world is a notorious façade which facilitates the payment of billions of dollars' worth in bribes, paid in the form of "commissions", incentivising terrorism and war. Millions suffer and die while others shore up handsome retirement funds.
We should be deeply ashamed of South Africa's part in it.
Holden and his colleagues have offered us what might be our last chance at making sure those who sold us to arms traders for bribes are held to account. We must not let the arms deal wither away into the ether again, taking our institutions and our dignity with it.
- Evans is a freelance journalist.
Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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