Tribunal hears Zuma era corruption, rooted in apartheid and 1999 arms deals


Johannesburg - A five-day tribunal focusing on South African's economic crimes has heard how the sins of previous transgressors still haunt South Africa today.

The People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime is trying to join the dots between apartheid era corruption involving sanctions busting selling of weapons, the 1999 arms deal and present day corruption, commonly known as state capture.

The tribunal was formed in reaction to the sluggish response of the state to corruption over the last decades, and is the first in the world to specifically address crimes of corruption and theft.

The evidence is being heard by a panel of esteemed jurists chaired by former Constitional Court Justice Zak Yacoob. The other panel members are Navi Pillay‚ Dinga Sikwebu‚ Mandisa Dyantyi‚ Yasmin Sooka and Allyson Maynard Gibson. 

The tribunal was organised by civil society groups including the Centre For Applied Legal Studies, Corruption Watch, Foundation for Human Rights, Open Secrets, Public Affairs Research Instituter and the Right2Know Campaign. They are hoping to shine the light on the reasons for South Africa's ongoing corruption scandals.

Moral authority

Yacoob began proceedings at the Women’s Prison in Constitution Hill on Saturday morning by reminding the audience and witnesses that the People’s Tribunal is not a court of law, and has no legal standing or authority. Instead, he said, that by its completion, the tribunal hope to have established a degree of moral authority and they will make findings of fact and recommendations.

Hennie van Vuuren Director, Open Secrets and author of ‘Apartheid Guns and Money’ told Fin24 that the issues of the past are closely linked to the present.

“We’re in the midst of a debate in our country, a struggle for truth and justice around the issue of state capture and corruption, but it’s imperative that we understand that the issue of corruption and state capture didn’t begin with the Gupta phenomena”.

“The charges that our president [Jacob Zuma] is fighting today, its genesis is in the corrupt arms companies who’d been busting sanctions with the apartheid state”.

Van Vuuren said the state arms company Denel is presently embroiled in controversy related to state capture, an echo from the past. Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba in August put pressure on Denel to end a planned joint venture with Gupta linked VR Laser.

Captured state institutions 

Arms deal critic and author Paul Holden also locates the apartheid era arms trade and the post-democratic arms deal in 1999 as a reason for why South Africa is currently grappling to deal with corruption.

“All structures were tested by the arms deal, the public protector, parliament, the scorpions, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) but executive power overrode them”.

“The Hawks come from the fact that the Scorpions investigated Zuma, we live in a present, defined by the reality of the arms deal,” said Holden.

Holden estimates between R61bn to R71bn was spent by the new democratic government on weapons in 1999, for which only a tiny percentage of the jobs promised in exchange by arms companies, were created.

Holden and others were critical of the Seriti Commission of Inquiry, into the arms deal, calling it a whitewash.


Lawyer Charles Abrahams was the first witness to be called to take to the stand on day one of the tribunal. He said that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided a loan of $400m to apartheid South Africa in 1976, just after the Soweto uprising. Apartheid Security spending increased by a similar amount that year.

Abrahams highlighted South Africa’s status as the number one gold producer in the world, especially after the end of the gold standard in 1971 as a reason international banks and institutions wanted to lend money to the apartheid government.

“Regrettably the [present day] South African government has been the biggest opposition to litigation.”

Abrahams advised that many of the recommendations made by the Truth and Reclamation Commission (TRC) should be revisited.

Former TRC Commissioner Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, who headed up the TRC investigative unit, told the Tribunal that none of the big corporations who’d worked with the apartheid government came to plead for amnesty.

Ntsebeza said that the TRC recommended that a wealth tax be imposed on white business as a form of reparations but this caused an outcry and was never implemented.

Corporate accountability

Director of the  of Khulumani Support Group Dr Marjorie Jobson, said in a presentation that multinational corporations have evaded taking any responsibility for apartheid crimes and that key figures in the post-democratic state have turned a blind eye to them, in exchange for receiving shares or positions on boards. 

Jobson named companies such as, Shell, ChevronTexaco, British Petroleum (BP), Sasol, Barclays Bank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Group, Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Ford, General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler and IBM as having profited from dealings with the apartheid state.

Justice Yacoob also expressed concern that notice will need to be given to those implicated so that they can choose to make representation in their defence. Evidence leaders said because the findings aren’t binding they could continue. Justice Yacoob encouraged all parties to submit their arguments, before findings are made.

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