CLEARLY designed as a public relations exercise, last Friday's news conference by four senior cabinet ministers merely heightens concerns about the inquiry into SA's R43bn arms deal.
Why has it taken the cabinet nearly three months to respond to the report by Parliament's public accounts committee recommending the inquiry? The timing is suspicious. Why wait until the eve of Justice Minister Penuel Maduna's announcement on whether the Heath unit is involved? Is it a coincidence that the ministers' attack on the committee and the auditor-general should follow a broadside against Judge Willem Heath by African National Congress spokesman Smuts Ngonyama?
The four ministers sounded oddly complacent, given the startling claims surrounding the deal, and the fact that Parliament thought them serious enough to order an inquiry. How, at this early stage, can they be so confident there was no skullduggery? They say government awarded the main contracts and cannot be blamed for any impropriety in subcontracting. But there are allegations of improper interference by high state officials and politicans to ensure that certain subcontractors were favoured. The ministers complain they were not asked to testify before the committee, and that both the committee and the auditor-general show little understanding of the tender process.
The committee obtained oral or written evidence from all the accounting officers in the affected departments, who should know the nuts and bolts of the various deals. Why, in a departure from normal practice, should the ministers have been invited to appear? And if they wanted to be included, why did they not ask to give evidence? They should be invited to come before the committee as soon as Parliament reconvenes, to determine if they indeed know more than anyone else.
Rather than clearing the air by backing the inquiry, government seems preoccupied with damage control. Today's announcement on Heath will be a further test of its resolve to fighting corruption.
With acknowledgement to Business Day.