Arms deal inquiry will have teeth: Seriti


The Times newspaper reported this morning that “arms deal” commission investigation chair Judge Willie Seriti was seeking to allay fears that his multibillion-rand inquiry is nothing but a white elephant.

The Mail & Guardian, meanwhile, reported fears the department of justice was seeking to “hijack” the inquiry to presumably manipulate its outcome, though this was not stated.

The Times says Seriti yesterday warned that nothing would be allowed to get in the way of the truth. Playing his cards close to his chest, Seriti said the commission had been given two years to complete its task. “But, given the vast amount of information out there, and the fact that we have only gathered a quarter of it, this process is likely to take at least three years.”

Outlining the progress made by the commission, Seriti said it had appointed 10 evidence leaders, some of the country’s greatest legal minds. “It is these minds which will help us to find the truth, no matter what or where it is.”

He said the inquiry had not reached the stage “where we have to compel people to give us information. We have sent written requests to both foreign and South African agencies, institutes and organisations. We have received positive responses from the foreign agencies who want to work with us. The kind of evidence we are seeking from foreign agencies relates to plea bargains and convictions of certain people in different countries,” he said.

Asked to name people the commission had sent letters to, Seriti declined, The Times adds. “We’ve sent letters of request to virtually everyone we think has documents relating to our mandate.” Letters of request have been sent to 15 different organisations. “These range from parliament, the cabinet, Armscor, Denel, the Treasury, the defence force and financial institutions.” The financial institutions were asked to provide information on money trails relating to the multibillion-rand arms procurement.

Seriti declined to comment on the inquiry’s scope. “The information we receive will determine this. We have limitations, but these are only over who we can subpoena. We can only subpoena those whom we think have information for us.” He said the commission had the necessary powers to get to the truth. “We can conduct searches and seizures. No one has told us information is classified and we will not let anything stand in our way in getting to the truth. There is no limitation on the information which we can pursue.” He said the commission’s terms of reference, which could be
amended, gave it a “permit” to look at whatever it thinks is relevant , The Times said.

But the M&G warns the deployment of a non-legal justice department official to a key position on commission has raised hackles. “Justice Minister Jeff Radebe promised the much-awaited commission would work independently, but concern is mounting about the involvement of the department of justice after one of its directors of human resources was seconded to take up the key role of secretary to the commission,” the M&G said. Breaking with tradition, the commission’s appointee is also not a legal professional. Human resources director Pretty Luphondo has been seconded from the justice department to replace Mvuseni Ngubane, the respected Durban attorney who allegedly committed suicide last month.

The move is seen by some legal professionals as further proof that the justice department could be trying to take control of the commission, which is being set up to investigate allegations of corruption relating to arms purchases in 1999, the paper adds.

The commission seems happy with the move. “Pretty Luphondo is definitely not an attorney, but she is an experienced administrator who has been appointed to the job of secretary,” said the spokesperson for the commission, William Baloyi. He says Seriti, was happy with the “effectiveness” of the work done by Luphondo when she was setting up systems for the commission and had decided to appoint her in the role.

The names of many ANC politicians, including those of the late former defence minister, Joe Modise, and President Jacob Zuma, have been dragged into the arms-deal scandal over the years, but the plug was pulled on a previous defence review that might have sorted out fact from fiction, the M&G reminds.

The commission’s aim is to expose any corruption that might have take place. Legal practitioners told the M&G that the secretary of the commission was the custodian of the evidence handed to the commission and was considered to play a vital role. Along with accepting evidence, Luphondo will be expected to subpoena evidence and handle all administration for the commission. They queried why the job had not been given to an attorney who would be [also] accountable to the Law Society. “It is not really acceptable that in a commission like this, which is being watched by the rest of the world, a justice department official is seconded to the crucial task of secretary,” said an attorney, who asked not to be named. “When you use a public servant, who holds them to account? This person will not be accountable to the Law Society.”

Retired banker Terry Crawford-Brown, whose court action to force the government to appoint the inquiry, told the M&G he was concerned about the entire process involving the commission. “First of all, it took them a helluva time for the arms-deal commission to get this far and we were promised it would be open and transparent. But it is very worrying that submissions have to be secret,” he said. “I have now signed off on my submission, which is on its way to the commission. I am not allowed to release my submission, as I would like to do. We are writing and asking for permission to release my submission and if it is not allowed, why not?”

New legal appointments have now been made to the commission. They are advocates Tayob Aboobaker, Tshepo Sibeko, Barry Skinner, Simmy Lebala, Moss Mphaga, Phumlani Ngobese, Carol Sibiya, S’busiso Zondi and Mhlape Sello, as well as attorney Matshego Ramagaga.

South Africa in 1998 announced that it was to acquire frigates, submarines, helicopters and fighters from a number of European suppliers to rejuvenate the prime mission equipment of the South African Navy and Air Force. Preferred bidders were announced at the Defence Exhibition SA in September that year. Negotiations followed with deals signed in December 1999. The contracts, worth some R30 billion at the time, became effective on April 1, 2000. Then-minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu in June last year said the cost of the SDP had grown to R42 362 053 814.

The deals would see South Africa gain four sophisticated German-built Meko A200SAN frigates, three state-of-the-art Type 209 MOD1400 submarines (also German-built), 26 Saab Gripen fighter aircraft, 24 British-built BAE Systems Hawk Mk 120 fighter trainers and 30 Italian-built AgustaWestland A109 light utility helicopters. All of these, except for the last few Gripen have now been delivered and paid for.

In June last year, Swedish defence multinational SAAB announced BAE Systems had paid Fana Hlongwane R24 million to help secure the Gripen contract. The Swedish company adds that news of the payment was hidden from it by its partner in the deal. The British defence giant last year reached an agreement with the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over allegations that it failed to provide accurate records in connection with the supply of an air-traffic control system to Tanzania. It admitted the charge and agreed to pay a penalty of £30 million, while the SFO waived its right to investigate other allegations, including those relating to South Africa. BAE Systems in June 2011 sold the last of its shares in Saab.

In August the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that Ferrostaal, part of the German Submarine Consortium, had made R300 million in “questionable” payments to secure its SA contract. Themba Godi, the chairman of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) said the development was startling, given the fact that the Hawks had closed the German arm of the investigation, citing a lack of evidence. “These revelations do indicate that unless this matter is thoroughly investigated, we will continue to have information coming to the public that shows us that maybe our anti-corruption agencies have not been doing their work.”