“Arms deal” probe to cost R40m

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Minister of Justice & Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe says his department has allocated R40 million to the commission of inquiry that will investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the Strategic Defence Packages (SDP) , generally known as the “arms deal”.

Speaking in Cape Town this morning, Radebe added the commission would be based in Johannesburg. President Jacob Zuma on Monday appointed Judge Willie Seriti of the Supreme Court of Appeal to head the probe. Assisting him are Justice Willem van der Merwe, Deputy Judge President of the North Gauteng High Court and Justice Francis Legodi, Judge of the North Gauteng High Court. Zuma gave them two years in which to complete their work.

Radebe this morning announced the terms of reference for the commission. He said the judges have been tasked to determine the rationale for the SDP and whether the arms and equipment acquired were under-utilised or not utilised at all.

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.

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 Swedish generation 4.5 SAAB Gripen fighter aircraft, 24 British-built BAE Systems Mk120 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.

The Seriti commission also have to consider if job opportunities that were anticipated to flow from the deal materialised. At the time, it was widely touted that the acquisitions would create 65 000 jobs. Offsets, the industrial participation by the arms suppliers, will also have to be investigated.

Government claimed the acquisitions would generate investment of worth about R104 billion. Both figures were met with public derision, with noted economist Mike Schussler calling it “voodoo figures.”

Finally, news service I-Net Bridge reported, the commission “will investigate whether any person or persons, within or outside of government improperly influenced the award or conclusion of any of the contracts awarded and whether legal proceedings should be instituted against such persons.”

The terms of reference also state that the commission should look into if there was any basis for the recovery of any losses the state may have suffered.

The South African Press Association adds the commission will have the power to subpoena witnesses. “They will have the power to subpoena anybody, including members of the executive,” the minister said. The three judges will also have powers of search and seizure and be able to compel witnesses to answer questions. Failure to cooperate with the commission will be an offence punishable with a fine or up to a year in prison.

Radebe says the final report would be made public, although interim reports submitted to the president every six months will not necessarily be released. The commission would work independently “of everyone, including the executive” to probe persistent allegations of corruption in the multibillion-rand arms deal. “The establishment of this commission and the commencement of its work represent a watershed moment in the history of democratic South Africa, in a quest to rid our nation of what has become an albatross that must now cease to blemish the reputation of our government and the image of our country.”

Former president Thabo Mbeki`s biographer Mark Gevisser has avered that the “arms deal has become the poisoned well of South African politics”, while former ANC Member of Parliament Andrew Feinstein has written that the “deal and its cover-up continue to cast a vast, dark shadow over South African public life”.