Public hearings and cross examination over a period of more than three years, along with evidence gathered during visits to foreign investigating agencies, will make up the bulk of the final report of the Seriti Commission.
Speaking earlier this week ahead of the final public hearing, Commission chairman Judge Willie Seriti said the Arms Procurement Commission was announced by President Jacob Zuma in September 2011 and “began in earnest” on April 16, 2012. The commission was established by Zuma to investigate allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety or irregularity in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages (SDPPS), better known as the Arms Deal, which saw new front line equipment acquired for two arms of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) in 1998.
It was, at the time, the single largest transaction undertaken by the government of democratic South Africa. Indications are at today’s prices the country paid in excess of R100 billion for four frigates, three submarines, 26 Gripen fighters, 24 Hawk lead-in fighter trainers, 30 Agusta light utility helicopters and four Super Lynx maritime helicopters which were originally set to cost R43 million. The acquisition of the military materiel was to be offset by defence industrial and non-defence industrial participation agreements which were supposed to have created at least 60,000 jobs. Many did apparently not reach the working stage while some started up and have since closed doors.
Seriti told the final public hearing in the Tshwane metro council chamber that the Commission was launched as a consequence of “incessant allegations of venality” relating to the SDPPS.
“These allegations which cast doubt on the wisdom of the first democratically elected government of South Africa, impugn the integrity of members of the executive, government officials, defence companies that won the bids, their employees and agents or consultants, have been in the public domain for quite some time. They have also been chronicled in several books and numerous press articles.
“We deemed it appropriate from the outset to solicit information from all interest parties and in May 2012 the Commission invited everyone with information relevant to its terms of reference to bring such information to its attention by way of affidavit. The response was surprisingly scant and we received a meagre eight submissions.”
Response from Parliament, including the Cabinet; the departments of Defence and Trade and Industry; National Treasury, Armscor, the Hawks, which inherited arms acquisition investigations from the disbanded Scorpions; the National Prosecuting Authority and the Auditor General was “heartening” the Judge said.
“These institutions not only provided us with the information but also affirmed they would co-operate with the Commission in discharging its mandate,” he said adding the “swift declassification” of documents also aided the Commission in its work. He makes no mention of the documentary evidence referred to by at least one witness – thousands of pages apparently locked in a container on the Hawks premises in Silverton, Pretoria.
Seriti said the Commission travelled overseas to the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Germany and France to consult with investigators on the arms acquisitions.
He also spoke of “the barrage of criticism” aimed at the Commission when senior officials resigned and allegations of a hidden agenda were made.
“When we thought we had weathered the storm a senior evidence leader resigned to by followed shortly by two other evidence leaders right in the middle of public hearings. This only served to strengthen the resolve of the remaining teams of evidence leaders, our support staff and the commissioners to soldier on and execute our mandate.”
The judge said evidence had been heard from “approximately 56 witnesses” as well as technical evidence from senior military officers, Armscor officials and “experienced officials” from government departments that took part in the procurement process.
He noted high-profile people who testified included former president Thabo Mbeki and former ministers Trevor Manual, Alec Erwin, Mosiuoa Lekota and Ronnie Kasrils. On the other side of the political fence were, among others, Patricia de Lille, David Maynier, Raenette Taljaard and Gavin Woods.
“Witnesses Andrew Feinstein, Hennie van Vuuren and Paul Holden were scheduled to appear but refused to testify. We do have the submissions they handed in in 2012 and these will be looked at,” Seriti said.
The judge added the “solitary and arduous task” of writing a final report would now commence.
“We have until December 31, 2015 to finalise it and submit it to the President but we will endeavour to submit it much sooner than stipulated in the terms of reference.”