Collision Course on Inquiry Possible
Ministers had little knowledge' of process committee took
THE standing committee on public accounts and the cabinet seem set on a collision course over the inquiry into SA's controversial R43bn arms deal. Gavin Woods, chairman of the standing committee, said yesterday it was "more than apparent" that the four ministers who defended government's handling of the arms deal last Friday did not have the "extensive information" supplied to the committee.
Woods said the ministers had "little knowledge" of the process the committee had followed in producing its report. The four ministers told a news briefing that government was convinced of the correctness and integrity of the contracts.
Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin, who led the briefing, said a review by the auditor-general, which called for further investigation of the deal, as well as the report by the standing committee on public accounts, did not have all the facts at hand.
The latest accusations come against the backdrop of uncertainty over whether the Heath anticorruption unit will be included in the list of agencies to probe the procurement process. The African National Congress expressed its opposition last week against opposition parties' vehement protestations to Heath being part of the probe.
Justice Minister Penuell Maduna is expected to disclose today whether government will include the unit in the investigation. Erwin said it was government's "firm and considered view that no concrete facts" had been presented to suggest that there had been any corruption. He said: "Accordingly, the government rejects with contempt any insinuation of corrupt practice on its part."
Government, Erwin said, was of the view that the auditor-general's review and the standing committee's report were "too cursory to do justice" to the matter. He expressed concern that the review and report had called into question "without any justification" government's integrity. Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Radebe also attended the briefing. Woods said there was a "considerable" inconsistency between the ministers' arguments and evidence made available by senior officials in their departments. He said the public was not properly informed on the rising cost of the arms packages, "and (the committee) has sufficient evidence to show that there can be no excuse for this".
Woods questioned why, in the case of the UK-built Hawk trainer aircraft, the "credible laid-down procedure was departed from, to the disadvantage of the taxpayer". Erwin said on Friday the Hawk trainer was chosen because it was the most compatible with the advanced Gripen fighter, which SA is buying.
"It is disappointing," said Woods, "that the ministers have not reacted to the breakdown in procedures many of which are vital to good practice." He also accused the ministers of failing to comment on the issues of "conflicts of interests to which the committee referred" and which he said were vital to the public interest. Erwin said that to insist government "must be held to account for minor subcontractors is to misunderstand procurement".
With acknowledgement to Bonile Ngqiyaza and Business Day.