Seriti probe’s cautious style risks hiding dirty secrets

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Three of the major players behind revelations of apparent wrongdoing in the 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement Packages (SDPP – aka arms deal) maintain the Seriti Commission of inquiry’s procedures risk hiding dirty secrets and becoming a cover-up.

Andrew Feinstein, Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren are represented by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) at the Commission’s public hearings currently underway in the Sammy Marks Building in central Pretoria, described as “a crucial opportunity to hold high-ranking officials, politicians and global arms corporations to account for the greatest scam perpetrated against the South African people in the post-apartheid era”.

All three have published on the ramifications of the multi-billion Rand deal that saw two arms of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) acquire new front line equipment.
“While the stakes are high,” the three note in a statement released by LHR, “The chair and the documents that form part of the evidence-in-chief arrive and depart every morning surrounded by blue lights, guarded by police officers in bulletproof vests holding rifles.
“Once in session, Seriti has a view over an arena teeming with lawyers – sometimes numbering up to two dozen – who work either exclusively for the Commission or the many interested parties defending the deal: Armscor, the SANDF, trade and industry and others. Collectively, they are paid hundreds of thousands of Rand in public money daily.
“A handful of journalists and military officials observe the proceedings with the lawyers and a lobbyist for the arms companies. The lobbyist, paid to report to arms companies in various European capitals, can often be seen engaging in whispering campaigns during breaks, including with the media. The intention appears to be that nothing should stick and facts do not gain traction. It is an unseemly exercise to behold.

Epic tussle for the truth
“Given the scale and scope of this epic tussle for the truth, it is mind-boggling the Commission too often appears to have been overly cautious and conservative in its approach. The result is its probe of the powerful is often reduced to a whimper. It seems intent on not rattling the status quo and not using its powers to ensure consistent probity of the deal. This continues even after former senior staff members levelled accusations of a so-called double agenda against the commission. A case in point this week was when our attorneys, LHR, were forced to decline the opportunity to cross-examine Alec Erwin (former trade and industry minister) owing to the lack of access to vital documents central to the witness’s testimony. Seriti interpreted it as us declining our right to cross-examine – a disingenuous conclusion. The truth is independent parties such as us cannot cross-examine witnesses without access to crucial documents.
“We asked the Commission to assist us in accessing the arms contracts. Had the commission not been overly cautious, it would have instructed the documents be released because there appears no legal barrier to do so. This is sadly part of a pattern of denying public access to key documents.

Contested terrain
“Despite these obvious failings, the Commission remains a contested terrain, even though the odds are heavily stacked against a fair outcome. On Monday, Seriti and lawyers for Erwin repeatedly expressed concern that we had in our possession a copy of the cabinet ‘Affordability Report’ into the arms deal. We find this approach both disturbing and wrong. The Commission’s job is to investigate all available facts. It should welcome the submission of information that helps it to fulfil its mandate justly and efficiently. The document has been reported on extensively in the media and has formed the subject of published material.
“Although it is marked ‘secret’, every South African has the right to know its contents, given it illustrates the flawed logic used in justifying we could ‘afford’ to buy arms. The report indicates the arms deal’s impact on the South African economy would be broadly negative in the best-case scenario and devastating in the worst-case scenario.
“On Tuesday, we were told Cabinet had declassified the document. This suggests, when the Commission wants to put shoulder to the weighty wheel of opening up access, anything is possible. The focus of the Commission should not be on how researchers and activists accessed a document, but rather on its crucially important content.
“This is especially true of a document that manifestly poses no threat to national security, contains information clearly in the public interest and whose classification served only to protect the powerful from the consequences of their own actions.

Truth will not be revealed
“We believe the truth will not be revealed if key information remains hidden from the public. If the Commission is to be successful, these documents need to be brought to light and roleplayers made to answer to them. Most worryingly, we are aware of almost four million pages of evidence that, according to reports, are locked in containers at the Hawks’ premises. These documents are the product of investigations of corruption in the arms deal by the disbanded Scorpions. We have little reason to believe the Commission is actively collating, digitising and analysing their contents. This despite promises that it would do so in August 2013.”



The three have asked for access to documentation as part of their attempts to bring more facts to the Commission.
“Failure would serve only to confirm increasing public cynicism and suspicion of an active cover-up,” they said.
“We cannot allow the Commission to fail its mandate and the South African people. At least four other investigations into the arms deal have failed in the past 15 years because of political interference. If the commission is the fifth on that list, we will allow the defining scandal of a free South Africa to continue to shape our politics and our future. We must engage with vigour in this and other processes to challenge this bleak prospect.”