Millions later, Seriti has brought us no closer to arms deal truth
GOVERNMENTS of all hues, democratic or dictatorial, are not averse to hoarding secrets or manipulating information to advance their political goals, even as they claim to be open and accessible. Information, after all, is what keeps them ahead of the game. Itís a powerful tool to control and exploit public opinion.
Which is why the government chose the festive season ≠ when many people were thinking of nothing but beach or time in the countryside ≠ to sneak into the Government Gazette its intention to turn e-toll infringements into traffic fines, allowing only a month for public comment.
But thatís not the only thing that happened while you were not looking or otherwise engaged with matters of levity. The final report of the Seriti commission of inquiry into the arms deal was handed over to President Jacob Zuma in Durban on December 30. Some smart aleck in the Presidency must have earned brownie points for suggesting the time and place, for it was clearly designed to downplay its significance.*1
But thatís been the tenor since the commission was appointed. It was never meant to uncover the truth. More a cover-up; at least thatís what the politicians have in mind.
Many people may have been surprised that Zuma appointed an inquiry in the first place, as the arms deal had been the source of many of his political woes. But he did so to forestall a high court application in 2009 to appoint an independent judicial inquiry into it.
He appointed the commission under Judge Willie Seriti in September 2011 but it was not until August 2013, after many fits and starts *2, that it began its work.
In October last year it was revealed in parliament that the commission had cost the taxpayer more than R113-million, most of it going into the pockets of evidence leaders. It seems the taxpayer, having paid billions of rands for arms that were not needed, will remain in the dark despite paying through the nose for the truth to be revealed. Also, the manner in which the inquiry was conducted left many with a bad taste in the mouth*3. It did not inspire confidence that the public would ultimately get to hear the truth.
But at some point the truth will have to be exposed and those responsible brought to book. The arms deal was a seminal event for the country, not only because of the sickening corruption and the enrichment of a few that followed, but because it saw a reordering of those priorities we thought would define the new society, such as channelling resources into areas neglected under apartheid.
Instead, amid so much poverty, vast sums of money were spent on military hardware as if we were a country at war or surrounded by hostile neighbours*4.
We got lazy and lethargic. The struggle had been won, we told ourselves, and we would take a moment to savour our freedom. It didnít last long. It was the point at which we discovered to our horror that our so-called liberators were human after all; the first time the ANC showed its infinite capacity to go rogue.
The arms deal disabused us of the starry-eyed notion that, in the ANC, we had a new broom that would sweep clean. It was quite a cold splash on our unsuspecting collective face. We know better now.
It tarnished Thabo Mbekiís reputation, hobbled Zumaís presidency and was a harbinger of the habits that have come to dog our society and may yet be the cancer that destroys the ANC.
These arms were procured during Nelson Mandelaís tenure*5, but he got out just in time.
Like the Information Scandal, which evicted John Vorster from power and ushered in the era of PW Botha and the reordering of political priorities, the arms deal turned the ANC into a snake pit, the comrades either fighting over the spoils or over who should shoulder the blame for the miasma of scandal that followed.
Mbeki was eventually hounded out of power*6, with Zuma inheriting the mantle. That he was able to ascend to power despite his many ethical challenges says much about the state of his party and of broader society. Instead of disqualifying him for high office, the scandals became something of an embroidery that made his candidacy even more appealing.
The esteemed members of the Seriti commission have hopefully done their best to unearth the truth, but that was never Zumaís intention. His aim was to pull the wool over our eyes.
If full disclosure was ever his intention, he would not have harassed the National Prosecuting Authority into dropping charges against him; he would not be opposing a court challenge to have those charges reimposed. He certainly would not have killed the Scorpions, a decision which more than any has opened the sluice gates of corruption.
It is in this light that the commission ≠ and whatever recommendations it makes ≠ should be seen.
*1 Let us not give credit for smartness where credit is not due.
The report was always due six months after the final public hearings. The commission then got extended a couple of times and it just happened that way that the six months then expired at the end of December.
*2 What's included in those fits and starts must not be forgotten. The extensive and expensive overseas jamboree done by Judge and Mrs Willie Seriti, Adv Fana Mdumbe and Kate Painting.
Of course, they were able to save a substantial amounts of the costs of this by getting Adv Mdumbe and Ms Painting to stay at three-star hotels over the road while Judge and Mrs Seriti stayed in five-star hotels.
The extra cost of the taxi fares to pick them all up staying at different places should be discounted as fruitful expenditure in the national interest.
Also of course, quite what Judge Seriti achieved on this trip is quite unknown to the people who paid for the commission.
One thing though, is that he met with several of the overseas investigators, yet forgot to invite them to testify.
He also met with the foreign supplier companies and also forgot to ask them to send representatives who had been themselves personally involved in the acquisitions so that they could be cross-examined about it.
Of course sending representatives who had not been themselves personally involved in the acquisitions and so we perfectly placed to defend their principals, but not be cross-examined was a perfect alternative.
And quite what Mrs Seriti achieved is less well known.
But a commission of enquiry might or might not be appropriate.
It depends on ones point of view.
*3 Is that the taste of excess secretions of the gall bladder?
I still have it.
They normally stay down low, but occasionally circumstances cause them to rise parasympathetically.
*4 More galling is that the SADF actually needed some stuff, but the Arms Deal without question bought mainly The Wrong Stuff.
Right now only one patrol corvette and one submarine are operable.
But instead of patrol, the patrol corvette is of to India this month to show the flag.
Only about a dozen of the 26 Gripens JAS39s are being flown.
They in any case were not acquired with weapons.
Just a few German short-range air-to-air missiles (26 x Diehl IRIS-T) were acquired to arm a handful of them for the Soccer World Cup in accordance with international obligations.
So few Gripen pilots have been trained that one can only wonder why the SAAF required 24 Hawk 120s.
Most of the light utility helicopters were grounded due to lack of operational funding.
Five of the 30 Agusta A109s flew into the ground writing off four of them and killing a dozen SAAF and Special Forces members between them.
*5 My testimony before the commission was that the Arms Deal happened on his watch.
He was the Commander-in-Chief of both the country and the South African National Defence Force.
Documents in the Mandela Archive show unequivocally that he was very well informed and on a very regular basis about the acquisition process, including the Shaik-Zuma enrichment process of bumiputera.
For something still unexplained, Mandela gave Zuma R1 000 000 of money that he had received from elsewhere, possibly channelled via North Africa.
*6 Here it is said in so many words.
Mbeki was eventually hounded out of power.
I have been saying that for very many years.
It happened after Adv Willem Heath wrote a secret report in July 2008 for the Save Zuma Committee headed by Dr Lindiwe Sisulu and a subsequent Recall Delegation headed by Mathews Phosa to Mbeki at his home in the early hours of 20 September 2008.
Barney Mthombothi is the Former Editor of the Financial Mail.
Coincidently, get the Financial Mail on Thursday, 2016-01-21.