Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2000-11-06 Reporter: Howard Barrell Reporter: Barry Streek Editor:

Arms Deal Test of SA's Anti-Corruption Fight

Publication  Mail & Guardian
Date 2000-11-06
Reporter Howard Barrell & Barry Streek
Web Link

The scale of investigation and the required regularity of reporting to the public accounts committee are unprecedented in SAparliamentary history.

The massive investigation into different aspects of South Africa's controversial R43,8-million arms deal is set to test the country's anti-corruption and oversight institutions to their limits. The institutions appear to be spreading the investigation between them to ensure that, if an inquiry conducted by any one of them is stonewalled, the investigation can still proceed to a full and proper conclusion.

Gavin Woods, chair of the standing committee on public accounts, Parliament's main oversight body, has received a death threat apparently linked to the investigation, and there are indications that other attempts have been made to interfere with the progress of the inquiry. 

The public accounts committee has, however, been "very encouraged" by the early response of the Cabinet and government departments to its inquiry, said Woods. Although some departments and ministers were initially hesitant, MPs on the committee were, for the first time in the history of the post-1994 Parliament, shown secret and confidential government documents. 

The Cabinet has also said that, if the committee wanted to interview ministers about the deals, the ministers would make themselves available. The Mail & Guardian first drew attention to possible conflicts of interest in the award of some secondary contracts that form part of the deal.

The cost of the arms deal has escalated from an estimated R29,9-billion just more than a year ago to R30,3-billion a few months later and, since then, to the latest available estimate of R43,8-billion. The public accounts committee has termed "possibly optimistic" estimates of the number of jobs said to be destined to result from associated offset deals. 

Despite the concerns of the committee and the continuing investigations, Woods has stressed that none of the deals is in danger. Within two weeks the committee is to convene an exploratory meeting involving the auditor general, the Heath investigative unit, the public protector, the Investigating Directorate for Serious Economic Offences, the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and other investigative bodies so that "the best combination of skills, legal mandates and resources be found for such an investigation", according to a statement by the committee. 

"Once this is established, the committee will issue an investigation brief to the team for its input." The investigative combination that is agreed will be required to report regularly to the committee so that its findings could be included in its final report to Parliament. It will issue another interim report early next year. 

The scale of investigation, the required regularity of reporting to the committee and its intention to issue another interim report before the conclusion of its investigations are unprecedented in parliamentary history. The Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) has welcomed the "assertive approach" taken by the public accounts committee. Its efforts "may prove to be a test case for the future of democratic accountability in South Africa", it said.

The head of Idasa's political information and monitoring service, Richard Calland, welcomed the combination of a number of agencies in the investigation. "Given the importance of the case, and its complexity, it is a very creative and sensible idea. It demonstrates the central role that Parliament can play in ensuring that there is meaningful oversight of executive power.

"The amount of public money involved in this case means that the stakes are high; it really is a litmus test for the various institutions of democratic accountability. The recommendations of the committee reflect a determination to pass the test," Calland said. 

By tradition, the public accounts committee pursues a cross-party approach in which all parties represented on it - both government and opposition - unite to ensure proper and efficient use of state funds. Woods, its chair, is from the Inkatha Freedom Party and two of its members, who have been among the most tenacious in establishing the facts about government spending, have been Laloo Chiba and Andrew Feinstein, both of the ruling African National Congress.

The opposition parties represented on the committee have also been playing their part in the investigation. 

With acknowledgement to Howard Barrel, Barry Streek and Independent Online.