Seriti Commission : Arms Deal Inquiry: Cloud of doubt over report
THE final report from the four-year investigation into corruption in the 1996-1999 strategic defence procurement packages known as the arms deal has been handed to President Jacob Zuma.
It is now time to see whether the investigation, which cost almost three times its original R40m budget, will lead to any prosecutions.
But any chance of recovering the estimated R1bn allegedly paid in bribes related to the deal has faded with the years that have passed.
There is already a sense that the report, if it is ever made public, will be a whitewash of the corruption and theft believed to have been perpetrated in connection with the R70bn deal.
Of particular concern, says David Maynier, a senior Democratic Alliance member who was subpoenaed to give evidence to the commission, is the lack of any explicit statement in the commission’s terms of reference to compel Zuma to make the report public. Zuma himself was implicated in transactions in which corruption and bribes were alleged.
Maynier says: “It is in the public interest for an unredacted copy of the final report, together with copies of the interim reports, to be made public as soon as possible and tabled in parliament.
“I sincerely hope I am wrong, but after appearing as a witness I am convinced that, at least when it comes to the key issue of whether the arms deal was tainted by fraud or corruption, the final report will be a whitewash.”
It was the arms deal that led to more than 780 charges of corruption against Zuma, which were withdrawn by the national prosecuting authority.
It also got his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, sent to jail and is said to be behind the move by Zuma and the ANC to disband the Scorpions investigative unit.
“Those alleged to have been involved, including Zuma, have nothing to fear,” Maynier says.
Presidency spokesman Bongani Majola has condemned the criticism of the commission by the DA, saying it is “unwarranted, shocking, irresponsible and totally unacceptable”.
“The president will release the report to the public as soon as he has concluded the necessary processing thereof,” says Majola.
Corruption Watch head David Lewis says it is vital to release the report, “even if the intelligence and sensitive commercial aspects are redacted”.
Critics of the commission point to the way it was run by appeal court judge Willie Seriti, whose behaviour during the commission’s hearings quickly put him at the centre of the story.
Seriti’s decisions as the commission’s chairman influenced what information could be heard and who would be allowed to give evidence. Witnesses and those who provided information were severely curtailed, and some information was completely ignored.
Such was the criticism of these decisions that the commission felt compelled to warn “members of the public and interested parties” that it was a “criminal offence to disparage or insult the commission or its members”.
That the commission and its own conduct became the focus of so much attention and criticism all but rang the death knell for its credibility and anything that it was likely to produce. Such was the unhappiness over how the commission was run and how the information was managed and shared that many people involved in the process resigned, including researchers, investigators, evidence leaders and commissioners.
Richard Young, a vocal critic of the arms deal who has spent at least R20m investigating it since his company lost a bid for a technology contract, says that after all the time and money invested in pursuing the truth it would be “self-defeating” to deny Zuma the “benefit of the doubt”.
“Zuma has said he will release the report,” Young says. “Let’s give them time to, as they say, process the report.”
What is a reasonable length of time? “Six weeks would be too short, six years ... far too long; even six months would be too long, but they have to be given time. It took three months for the Farlam Commission report [into the Marikana massacre] to be released.”
The ANC government may want to keep the report under wraps until after the local government elections, due any time from May to August.
Expectations of the report, however, may already be far too high.
Young says the commission of inquiry has no power of sanction. It can find, for example, that there is plausible and credible evidence that would need thorough investigation by the Hawks.
“Judge Farlam recommended investigations into individuals [in the Marikana report],” he says. The most prominent person*2 Farlam identified for investigation was police commissioner Riah Phiyega, who has been suspended.
Many witnesses in the army*1 and the navy who could have provided direct knowledge of the process were never called to testify. Young says this could mean the entire commission process was illegitimate.
No matter what the report does say, it is unlikely that the arms deal scandal will go quietly into the night or be forgotten. It provides opposition parties with too valuable a political weapon.
The army might get lucky next time.
Let's give it the benefit of the doubt.
*2 Other prominent persons were : the Provincial Commissioner of the Police of the North-West Province, Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo; and the delay caused by Major General Naidoo in bringing medical attention to Scene 2.
It is worth watching the new documentary aired on eTV recently called Miners Shot Down.
Especially worth watching and the only less than heavy content of it is Ronnie Kasrils, former Minister of Defence and fellow witness at the Seriti Commission.
Most stark and possibly the most heavy, is watching the freshly-shot and critically-wounded miners lying in heaps and just being watched by the tactical policemen and not receiving any attention.
It's the kind of response that one might expect more from the South West Africa Police Counter-Insurgency Wing than the South African Police Service.
At least at SWAPOL they got R50 an ear and a bottle of brandy.