Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2001-11-23 Reporter: Editorial Editor:

Permanent Damage


Publication  Mail & Guardian
Date 2001-11-23
Reporter Editorial
Web Link


The findings of the marathon investigation into the arms deal in many ways represent a remarkable achievement for South Africa. It is extremely rare for any country to peer with any seriousness into the murky world of weapons contracts. Many Western nations are content to sweep such matters under the carpet.

For this, and the apparent rigour of the primary investigation, the government and the investigators deserve credit. The report contains fascinating, and embarrassing, detail about how nearly every aspect of the arms package was riddled with procedural and technical problems. Tenders were not properly conducted, bidders were allowed to tinker with bids after submitting them, goalposts were moved after tenders were under way and minutes explaining crucial decisions were lost.

The problem is in the gap between the meat of the inquiry and its superficial recommendations. One of the most controversial branches of the investigation, into the corvette systems, exemplifies this discrepancy. The investigation backs C2I2's Richard Young, exposing a litany of procedural problems surrounding the award of the contract to Schabir Shaik, but offers anodyne[1] findings and no recommendations.

It has been suggested that the people who wrote the findings and the final summary did not talk to those who did the real fact- grubbing. This is plausible, especially considering the tensions said to have developed between the sleuths and their masters. Wally van Heerden, senior investigator from the Auditor General's office and a driving force behind the probe, was taken off the case after reportedly criticising the preposterous public hearings on the arms deal.

If the idea was to shield government, it may prove an illusion. Courts called on to weigh civil claims against the state may reach very different conclusions about the raw material thrown up by the report.

The suspicion that the investigators pulled their punches is reinforced by the bizarre finding that the government is guilty of no wrongdoing. This blanket exoneration seems based on an extremely restrictive definition of "government". With the possible exception of Joe Modise, who still seems to be under scrutiny, there is no evidence of impropriety against Cabinet ministers. But numerous state officials, some senior, have been exposed for misdeeds ranging from conflict of interest to incompetence. It should be remembered that the investigation was about irregular conduct of all kinds, not simply corruption.

The political dynamics around the probe have reinforced the impression that damage limitation has been the government's overriding concern. Public confidence in the investigation was seriously eroded by such actions as the exclusion of Willem Heath's investigative unit, the crippling of Parliament's public accounts committee, allegations of partisan interference by the parliamentary speaker, the resignation from Parliament of MP Andrew Feinstein, the failure of Parliament's ethics committee to interrogate Tony Yengeni and the submission of the investigators' report to President Thabo Mbeki well before it was published.

In some respects the government deserves praise for the way the investigation has unfolded. There has been no cover-up in the classic sense. The prosecutions already initiated, and others that may follow, will send a clear message to politicians and officials looking to line their pockets at public expense.

But the doubts detailed above may have tarnished this achievement, and in particular the damage to Parliament and its oversight role could well be permanent.

[1] Oxford Dictionary : pain killing, soothing

With acknowledgement to the Mail and Guardian.