The Seriti Commission has been thrown into disarray, albeit temporarily, by the refusal of a re-subpoenaed witness to testify. He maintains the Commission will, among others, “provide no remedy in keeping alleged corrupt elites out of prison”.
Hennie van Vuuren, one of three witnesses who last month distanced themselves from the efforts of Judge Willie Seriti to establish wrongdoing in the multi-billion Rand Strategic Defence Procurement Packages (SDPP), on Monday took the stand and said: “I respectfully decline to testify”.
Witnesses Andrew Feinstein and Paul Holden also withdrew from the Commission and were re-subpoenaed. Reports indicate they will not be appearing before the Commission as they reside outside South Africa and Holden maintains his subpoena never arrived. Feinstein, through his lawyer, Advocate Geoff Budlender, told the Commission it did not have international jurisdiction.
Van Vuuren issued a statement through Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) to explain his reasons for keeping mum on the Seriti Commission witness stand. These are being refused access to evidence; being refused the opportunity to provide the Commission with “crucial” documentary evidence; not being allowed to speak to documents witnesses have not written, and the loss of public trust in the Commission and its work.
“There is evidence to suggest the Commission is following a second agenda, namely, to discredit critical witnesses and find in favour of the State and arms corporations’ version of events.
“Since January 2013 at least four senior staff have resigned in protest at the Commission’s conduct. In August 2014, two senior evidence leaders resigned from the Commission, saying its approach ‘nullifies the very purpose for which the commission was set up’. The Commission has called only two people to testify, of the dozens who have been directly implicated in impropriety. Most recently almost 40 civil society organisations have called for the Commission to be disbanded.
“It is an indisputable fact that the Commission has lost the trust of the public whom it is intended to serve,” Van Vuuren’s statement said in part.
Of his decision to not testify he said: “I am mindful of the fact that the arms deal has wrought havoc on the lives of ordinary South Africans and corrupted our politics for the past 15 years. It has profited international arms corporations while weakening our democratic state institutions. It has profited the rich at the expense of the poor.
“I am also mindful that the cover-up that followed the arms deal has put in place a system of patronage with the purpose of keeping alleged corrupt elites out of prison. It allows them to continue benefiting from the spoils of an unequal society. I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this Commission will provide no remedy to this situation.
“For these reasons, I can no longer in good conscience participate in a hearing of the Arms Procurement Commission. To do so would be to aid a deeply unfair and flawed process. I am of the view that the Arms Procurement Commission has strayed from its mandate and has become a fundamental obstacle to the public’s right to know and to justice.”
Seriti on Monday told Budlender that the law “will have to take its course” in response to his client’s refusal to testify. “We will decide in due course on the sort of action we are going to take…We are going to try and put into motion processes of the law to deal with your client’s refusal, despite having been properly subpoenaed to testify before this commission,” Seriti said.