Arms Deal inquiry extended for another year

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Judge Willie Seriti’s Commission of Inquiry into the Strategic Defence Procurement Package (SDPP), better known as the Arms Deal, has had its lifespan extended by a year.

The Commission, currently busy with the first round of public hearings into the acquisition of frigates, submarines, jet fighters, lead-in fighter trainers, light utility and specialist maritime helicopters, was originally scheduled to finish its work by the end of this month.

In August the Presidency, via spokesman Mac Maharaj, indicated President Jacob Zuma was “giving consideration” to extending the Commission’s original two year timeframe. A month later a defenceWeb request to him for further information was referred to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to which no response was ever received.

On Friday a statement issued by Maharaj said the Seriti Commission would now continue its work until November 30 next year and submit its final report to Zuma, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), “no less than six months later”.

The Commission has been dogged by problems since its staff took office in April last year. The first round of public hearings was originally set to start on March 4 and finish on May 31 with a witness list that included original Arms Deal whistleblower Patricia de Lille, then an Independent Democrat MP and now Cape Town mayor, as well as well-known anti-arms deal campaigners Terry Crawford-Browne, Richard Young, Gavin Woods, Andrew Feinstein and Paul Holden. SA shadow defence and military veterans minister David Maynier was also on the first witness list.

The hearings were then postponed to August 5 “primarily due to what transpired during ongoing consultations between Commission evidence leaders and key witnesses” Commission spokesman William Baloyi said on February 26.

On July 16 the commission issued a statement with a new list of witnesses. Gone were the whistleblowers, replaced by senior serving SA Air Force and SA Navy officers, as well senior officials from Armscor, the Department of Trade and Industry and National Treasury. The hearings would start on August 19 and run until the end of January 2014.

The statement also pointed out the newly called witnesses would explain the rationale behind for acquisition of new front line mission equipment for the air force and navy.

Names on this list included former president Thabo Mbeki and former ministers Trevor Manuel (finance), Alec Erwin (trade and industry), Ronnie Kasrils (defence and intelligence) and Mosioua Lekota (defence).

Mbeki and Manuel are the final names on the current list and they are scheduled to appear at the Pretoria public hearings between January 14 and 28 next year.

Other hindrances to the Commission’s credibility saw Judge Francois Legodi, one of two co-commissioners originally appointed to serve alongside Seriti, resign before public hearings started and a senior investigator, Norman Moabi, also left saying there was a double agenda in the way the Commission and its investigation was being run.

These events prompted Crawford-Browne, whose insistence on the Commission took him as far as the Constitutional Court, to call for it to be shut down.

Current SA National Defence Force Chief, General Solly Shoke, and a former SA Air Force Chief, Lieutenant General (ret) Willem Hechter, have to date been the only additional witnesses called.

The public hearings have also had to be stopped because of a burst water pipe flooding the chamber it is using in the Sammy Marks Building in downtown Pretoria and, on another occasion, a power failure also put paid to a day’s work by Seriti and his team.