Book Review: Arms Deal in Your Pocket

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The title was likely inspired by the phrase ‘a politician in your pocket” and while it may not be “the best president money can buy” it may well be the best book to date on Strategic Defence Package and the decade of allegation and denial that has surrounded the so-called “arms deal”.
The publishers, Jonathan Ball, say the book has sold exceptionally well. Published in September 2008 and was reprinted twice before year-end. While it is not known what the print runs were, they would not have been inconsiderable: the economics of print demand numbers.
The Arms Deal in Your Pocket deftly picks up the strands from its predecessors, Andrew Feinstein`s After the Party (Jonathan Ball, 2007) and Terry Crawford-Browne`s Eye on the Money (Umuzi, 2007) and takes the story forward to August 2008. From the strands, Holden, a young researcher, weaves a rope. But since the story is still incomplete, we will have to wait to see who hangs from it.
Victims to date include former African National Congress chief whip Tony Yengeni, the late defence minister Joe Modise, ex national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, imprisoned KwaZulu-Natal “businessman” Schabir Shaik and South Africa`s likely next president Jacob Zuma. The role – or otherwise – of each is examined. The reviewer will leave it to the reader to decide his success in this endeavour.  
Holden also tackles some “unanswered questions” regarding the SDP, such as the roles of Thabo Mbeki and Schabir`s brother Shamin “Chippy” Shaik in the matter with varying degrees of success. Varying because not all the facts are known and because any writer making or repeating allegations of corruption has to beware of defamation.
It is difficult to criticise a book that labels one a “defence expert” but that is the task of a reviewer. Ultimately The Arms Deal in Your Pocket contains nothing new. It essential repacks what is known into a tight 350 pages and provides a number of useful annexures with potted biographies of the key figures and companies as well as a detailed timeline and a section of recommended reading. While there are detailed footnotes, there is, strange to say, no index. This is a pity. The book is easy enough to navigate, but an index would have made it easier to find a personality or an event than is now the case. A photo section would also have been valuable.       
The book correctly starts with two chapters setting out the context of the SDP and explaining what was acquired. Unfortunately those chapters take up just 29 pages. In that regard The Arms Deal in Your Pocket accurately mirrors the larger controversy surrounding the “arms deal”: there is a great deal of smoke regarding allegation of cover-up and corruption, also some fire (although the size of the flames are a matter for dispute). There is much less talk on whether the “deal” was good. This is sadly in keeping with the ongoing lack of a public debate on matters military, a point coincidentally raised by the SA Communist Party in a policy conference around the time this book appeared.      
Mbeki`s biographer Mark Gevisser is correct to aver, as he does in a cover quote, that the “arms deal has become the poisoned well of South African politics”. Feinstein in his foreword says, again, correctly, that the “deal and its cover-up continue to cast a vast, dark shadow over South African public life”. That can be extended to include the SA National Defence Force and its Services, Defence Materiel Division and acquisition agency, Armscor. It can be further extended to include the local and global defence industry: as long as the poison is not fully drained and the shadow remains, all acquisition projects and everyone involved in them will appear suspect in the public eye. That is not acceptable.  
The Arms Deal in Your Pocket
Paul Holden
Jonathan Ball
Jeppestown (Johannesburg)
2008