Arms Deal Debate Divides Parliamentary Body
|Reporter||Robert Brand, Andre Koopman and Sapa|
The stage is set for a damaging confrontation between African National Congress members of parliament's watchdog public accounts committee and its chair, Inkatha Freedom Party MP Gavin Woods, over widely differing interpretations of the committee's handling of the arms probe.
At a press conference in parliament on Monday the ANC said the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) had not singled out the Heath anti-corruption unit in its recommendation to parliament that allegations of serious irregularities in the R43-billion arms deal should be investigated.
But Woods, who was not present at the press conference, stuck to his guns, insisting that all political parties, including the ANC, had wanted the Heath unit included in the multi-agency probe.
Woods insisted that all political parties had wanted the Heath unit
Speaking in Constantia in Cape Town before a four-day committee workshop, Woods said: "It is quite clear in my mind that every member of the committee was of the opinion that the report expressed the need and desire for all four of the agencies to be involved in the investigation. Any deviation from that position would be incorrect."
After hearing evidence from various people involved in the arms procurement process, Scopa adopted a resolution in November last year calling for an "exploratory meeting" between various investigative agencies - including the Heath unit - to discuss a probe of the arms deal.
It recommended the Heath Unit, the Public Protector, the Investigating Directorate of Serious Economic Offences (Idseo) and any other appropriate investigative body, should be part of that meeting.
This did not mean that all four agencies had in fact been mandated to be part of the probe, said Andrew Feinstein, the ranking ANC member on Scopa.
The meeting occured on November 13 but President Mbeki's refusal to issue a proclamation to enable the Heath unit to join the investigation meant Scopa had no choice but to recommend that the probe went ahead without him.
Irreconcilable differences could destroy non-partisan operation of the committee
Feinstein said at the time of the drafting of the resolution "it wasn't clear which units we wanted involved".
However, Woods dismissed this view, saying the exploratory meeting was to ensure that all four investigating units were brought together, to see how best they could co-operate on the probe.
Irreconcilable differences between Woods and the ANC members of Scopa on this issue could destroy the non-partisan operation of the committee, which traditionally has an opposition member as a chairperson and takes decisions by consensus rather than party-political division.
Woods' position as chair could be at stake, observers said.
Feinstein said he would discuss the differences with Woods when the committee meets in parliament later this week.
"I can't speak for Dr Woods, but I have no doubt that when we sit down in the committee, when we all have the same information at our disposal, we'll be of one mind."
The ANC said it wanted the committee to meet as soon as possible this week to discuss the arms probe and would ask Woods to convene such a meeting: "We need to clarify the understanding of the committee and the way forward."
The ANC said cabinet ministers "invited" by the committee to answer questions on their role in the controversy had undertaken to give their co-operation.
Feinstein said the ANC wanted to see the arms probe, headed by the auditor-general, the public protector and the Idseo, back on track as soon as possible.
He did not rule out the possibility that the committee might at a later stage recommend that the Special Investigating Unit - minus Judge Heath - become part of the probe.
This would only be possible once the necessary legislative amendments were made by parliament in line with last year's constitutional judgment that the unit could not be headed by a judge.
In a statement by Raenette Taljaard, MP, Democratic Alliance spokesperson on public accounts, said the ANC had missed "a wonderful opportunity to call the executive to account".
Taljaard described the ANC view as a "legalistic interpretation" of Scopa's recommendation.
"We all know what was intended and South Africa knows that the ANC is trying to run away from it. The DA states that the arms procurement deal must be investigated properly and, irrespective of who is involved, justice must be done."
Taljaard said the DA would "do whatever it can to maintain the tradition of non-partisanship on Scopa", but the party was "fully in support of the views of Dr Wood".
Commenting on Monday's developments, Richard Calland, political analyst with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said that, up till now, "what has been admirable about this committee is that it has worked across parties with a single apparently united vision as to what should happen".
Despite their comments about the Heath unit, Calland did not think that there was any dilution of intent on the part of ANC members to investigate the arms deal.
"One has to recognise that, in a Westminster-based parliamentary democracy inevitable and natural tensions occur where members of the ruling party have to balance their responsibility to the party with their responsibilities as parliamentarians."
He added that ANC members had continued to play a "strong, creative and constructive role in the arms investigation".
With acknowledgement to Sapa and Independent Online.