ANC Leaves Door Open for Unit - Without Heath
African National Congress MPs on Monday suggested the Heath anti-corruption unit - minus its head Judge Willem Heath - could still play a role in the multi-agency probe into the R43-billion arms deal.
The door was left open following a meeting of the ANC's study group on public accounts called to discuss the furore over President Thabo Mbeki's decision to exclude the Heath Unit from the probe.
The matter was also expected to be discussed at a closed meeting in Constantia by Parliament's watchdog public accounts committee (Scopa) on Monday afternoon.
However, the ANC said it would ask that the issue instead be dealt with "as soon as practically possible" at a separate committee meeting open to the media and the public.
The committee - in which the ANC has a majority - originally proposed the multi-agency probe into the arms acquisition process which has been the subject of corruption allegations.
Addressing journalists in Parliament, ANC study group chairman Andrew Feinstein said if the committee felt it necessary it could still recommend the unit's inclusion at a later stage.
However, this could only occur after amendments to the unit's founding legislation, in line with last year's Constitutional Court ruling that it was unconstitutional for a judge to head it.
The court gave Parliament a year to amend the legislation.
As expected, ANC MPs, flanked by Enver Surty, the party's chief whip in the National Council of Provinces and their National Assembly deputy chief whip, Geoff Doidge, endorsed Mbeki's decision to exclude Heath from the probe.
They denied this view conflicted with the earlier sentiments expressed in Scopa's report to Parliament and unanimously adopted by the National Assembly on November 2.
Feinstein said the resolution merely recommended an "exploratory meeting" involving four agencies.
The agencies included the Heath Unit, the Public Protector, the Investigating Directorate of Serious Economic Offences (IDSEO) and the Auditor-General, and any other appropriate investigative body, should be part of that meeting.
This did not mean that all four agencies had in fact been given a mandate to be part of a probe. The four were to have reported back to the committee on the way forward, but events had since overtaken this, he said.
At the time of the drafting of the resolution "it wasn't clear which units we wanted involved", Feinstein said. However, committee chair Gavin Woods (IFP) on Monday again dismissed this view.
Woods insisted all political parties, including the ANC, wanted the Heath unit included in the probe.
"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," he said.
In her reaction, the Democratic Alliance spokeswoman on public accounts, Raenette Taljaard, said the ANC had deliberately missed a wonderful opportunity to call the executive to account.
"The DA is shocked by the legalistic interpretation that the ANC now seeks to place upon the resolution of Scopa and of Parliament.
"We all know what was intended and South Africa knows that the ANC is trying to run away from it."
Taljaard said the sooner a meeting of the committee - open to the public and media and at which cabinet ministers and others would be called to give evidence - took place, the better.
This was echoed by the African Christian Democratic Party, which said it took a dim view of government's strong-arm tactics.
It accused the executive of forcing ANC committee members to change their view about including Heath.
"This is tantamount to the executive blackmailing and threatening the legislative, and is appalling and very serious," said Louis Green, the ACDP deputy leader.
Meanwhile, Feinstein said the ANC wanted to see the arms probe, involving the auditor-general, the public protector and IDSEO, back on track.
He skirted questions about whether he believed the committee's integrity had been impugned because of Deputy President Jacob Zuma's criticism in a letter to Woods.
Feinstein said committee members had not seen the letter and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment at this stage.
f necessary, Zuma could also be called before the committee to explain his views.
In his letter dated January 19, Zuma accused the committee of seriously misdirecting itself and arriving at decisions that were not substantiated by any facts.
In her reaction, National Assembly Speaker Dr Frene Ginwala said on Monday she was surprised there was any question whether Parliament would continue to perform its constitutional responsibilities.
The National Assembly was expecting to receive the next report of the public accounts committee on the arms deal as indicated in the November 2 report.
Ginwala said she was also awaiting a reply from Woods, on her request to "clarify a number of procedural and legal issues at a meeting of the committee at the earliest opportunity".
Also on Monday, Heath said in a radio interview on SAFM radio that he was looking for a new job.
The justice ministry, meanwhile, rejected calls from prominent church leaders and some political parties for an independent judicial commission of inquiry into the arms probe.
With acknowledgment to Sapa and Independent Online.