Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-01-22 Reporter: Editor:

Burden of Proof 

Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-01-22
Web Link

BEYOND the sparks flying over the the inquiry into possible corruption related to the R43bn arms package, profound issues of governance are at stake; issues which could colour the legacy of the Mbeki government.

Judge Willem Heath's personal conduct in this affair has not been helpful. His latest initiative approaching Nelson Mandela has made it politically impossible for the former president to whisper sage advice in his successor's ear.

But this is not about Judge Heath, the man. The intervention 10 days ago of Minister Alec Erwin and three colleagues, to President Thabo Mbeki's decision to exclude Heath's unit from the investigation and Deputy President Jacob Zuma's attack on parliament's public accounts committee, suggests a carefully planned cabinet strategy to head off an impending crisis.

But it is doubtful the strategy will succeed. The flawed, legalistic argument for blocking the participation of the unit is unconvincing. Instead, government has created the impression, through its attacks on Heath and on the committee, that it is intent on eliminating the most troublesome of the participants in the investigation.

This will have two consequences. First, even if the remaining investigating bodies do an objectively flawless job, they may have difficulty satisfying public and media opinion of this. Their apparent collective decision to state that they will manage without the unit gives the impression, fairly or otherwise, that they came under executive pressure to do so.

Second, government will find itself in a position where, in the court of local and international public opinion, the burden of proof has shifted. Instead of the investigating agencies needing to demonstrate that wrongdoing has taken place in awarding the contracts, the onus will now be on government to show that all was above board. There is little doubt that new allegations will emerge with monotonous regularity, each one hurting government's image and each will have to be disproved.

It will be debilitating. It threatens to divert attention from what should be the priorities of the next several years economic development and growth and the the fight against disease.

Clearing the air will require, at some stage, a creative response from government be it a proclamation for a special investigative unit (possibly a Heath-less one) or a new and independent judicial inquiry. We would welcome the latter.

Finally, and most important, the destruction of a credible public accounts committee cannot be allowed.

Let us hope reason and balance prevail.

With acknowledgement to Business Day.