The Archbishop’s call

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Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former head of state FW de Klerk have petitioned President Kgalema Motlanthe to appoint “an independent and public judicial commission of inquiry” into allegations of impropriety surrounding the 1999 Strategic Defence Package (SDP).

The programme saw SA acquire 50 fighter aircraft, 30 light utility helicopters, four frigates and three submarines for R47.4 billion, the current Treasury figure, payable over 12 years.  
    
The two Nobel Laureates want Motlanthe to act by next Wednesday – 10 December – also known as International Human Rights Day.    
“There should also be an investigation into the possibility of cancelling arms deal contracts tainted by corrupt and fraudulent dealings, and recovery of payments already made,” the two add in a co-signed letter.
Advocate Paul Hoffman, SC, of the Centre for Constitutional Rights and defence industry critic Terry Crawford-Browne add in an annexure that the South African government “has given lip service to the eradication of poverty whilst squandering national resources on armaments which the country cannot afford, and for which the purchase was evidently motivated by bribes and corruption.
“The arms deals have unleashed a culture of corruption that jeopardizes our hard-won democracy.  We fully understand that our government came under huge pressure from European arms companies and governments to buy these armaments. Given the current international financial crisis, we request the President and his colleagues to negotiate cancellation of these contracts, and to prioritise socio-economic upliftment of the poor.”
What should we make of this?
Let`s start with the last bit first. It`s an old hobby horse of the demilitarisation lobby to link defence to development in such a way to make spending on the first appear to be a deduction from the second in a zero sum game where the arms industry steals from the poor.
In this country that`s simply not true. A look at the national budget would confirm that. Government this year planned to spend R632 billion. Of this a mere R28.2 billion (bn) was granted the Department of Defence or about five cents in every government rand.   
The rest went elsewhere, including R121.1bn on education, R105.3bn for welfare, R75.5bn on health, R67.1bn for policing, R52.6bn on housing and R31.4 billion for water and agriculture. All of this is socio-economic spending, clearly a government priority. Whether this is properly spent is a debate for another time but suffice to say adding the defence department`s measly R28bn to the education or welfare budget likely won`t improve matric results or improve the lot of grant recipients by much. Capacity to deliver and competence is the issue, not a lack of money.
Then there is the presumption that defence acquisition is per se corrupt. Some deals certainly are. But corruption is not unique to defence or to government contracting. It is likely wherever controls are lax and funds plenty.
Now, is there reason to investigate the SDP?
If it can get us closure on the allegation, aspersions and suspicions, then yes.
Accusations have been swirling for a decade and it is time they are either proven or finally dispelled. For the last ten years they have poisoned our politics and public discourse and for as long they have cast doubt on the industry and the defence acquisition system. A whole raft of new air force and navy as well as army and health service projects are making their way through the process at present and its time trust is restored. The alternative is having the same, depressing, saga over and over again, akin to Bill Murray`s character in the 1980s movie Groundhog Day.
It is, in the words of apartheid prime minister John Vorster, too ghastly to contemplate.
Humphrey would argue – and did in one classic episode – that one should resist any inquiry. If one cannot resist, one should appoint someone to the task who can be controlled. In the case of the SDP this has arguably been done. Perhaps it is time for something novel: a proper inquiry. Let the chips fall where they may…
    
If corruption is found should the goods be returned and monies recovered?
Cancelling the “deal” and returning the goods makes for good rhetoric but is not practical. The goods have been received and the payments have largely been made.  
             
At best government could seek to sell the equipment and recoup some money. But the ships, subs, planes and fighters were all acquired to meet genuine and demonstrable military requirements. All the equipment, on their own merits, are excellent. Yes, one can argue whether they meet the user requirement but it is not as if the machines are intrinsic duds. They have been delivered; let`s make the best of them.
As for recovering money, should wrongdoing be found, Adv Willie Hofmeyr`s Special Investigating Unit can be put to the job.  
  
“The arms deal” has become the yardstick of this government. Many other government projects, for example the pebble bed modular reactor, are measured in multiples of the SDP. Something will cost twice or thrice what “the arms deal” cost. It is a neat trick as it also casts suspicion on the contractor, often intentionally. The SDP also remains a handy whip with which to beat the ruling party and perhaps the leaders of its breakaway faction too, as we shall see in the run-up to the March general election.         
   
While some will see this inquiry as welcome as pork at a Bar Mitzvah, it may be our last best hope as industry and as a nation to get closure and move on. The prospect is dismal like a dentists` appointment. But once over we may all get to smile again.   
The current acquisition system: Who does it serve? 
My reading of the current acquisition system is that it is a rigorous and thorough, and if left to the professionals produces a recommendation on the best product from the best vendor at the best price.
Then politicians enter the process. Now the question arises as to the purpose of government acquisitions generally and defence equipment specifically. Do we want to buy a billion-rand computer system for home affairs or helicopters for the Air Force to satisfy a thoroughly deliberated user requirement or do we purchase computers and helicopters to buy friends? Government in the late 1990s decided that all international purchases worth US$10 million or more would be subject to “industrial participation”, also known as “offsets”.
It has been explained that some of the SDP acquisitions were made to cement strategic alliances with key trading partners, others to gain the best offsets, or both. It has been charged by some critics of the SDP, notably Richard Young who says he has boxes of evidence to prove what he alleges that this led certain politicians to cause the reverse engineering of the user requirement to fit the strategic or economic choice. Young calls this fraud. He should be addressing Parliament`s Standing Committee on Public Accounts next month and has promised to bring the corroboration. Trial lawyers say it is not what one knows, but what one can prove.
The bigger issue remains though: what is the purpose of government acquisition? Presuming Young is right, do we continue to agree to the subordination of military requirements in order to secure strategic alliances that can be broken for reasons of political expediency or economic benefit that may not materialise? Some of us serve in the military. Some of us have spouses, children or constituents in uniform. Ultimately their lives are at stake. As a nation, as public representatives, as industry, we better debate and decide on this.         
Either way, we may need to find ways to take politics out of defence procurement. This is of course a global problem and others countries, including the US face the same struggle. One or more may have a system where an independent body of impeccable people serving as fixed term and answerable to Parliament decide in an open forum using a well published and well understood set of criteria. Turkey has something similar. I`m sure it can be fiddled. Anything involving humans can be corrupted. The trick is to make it sufficiently difficult for those so inclined that they are deterred, prevented or detected.
What say you?
Let me know at [email protected]