Publication: Sunday Independent Issued: Date: 2001-01-13 Reporter: Editor: John Matisonn & Sam Sole

Arms-Probe Row Turns Nasty

Publication  Sunday Independent
Date 2001-01-13
Editor John Matisonn & Sam Sole
Web Link

Months of simmering tension over the investigation into the R43-billion arms deal have erupted into full-scale conflict between the government and some of the investigators, with each side accusing the other of being misleading  and ill-informed.

Conflicting statements by four cabinet ministers, on the one hand, and the chairperson of parliament's public accounts committee, on the other, have set the scene for a confrontation when parliament opens next month.

The escalation of political tension was marked by a news conference on Friday led by Alec Erwin, the trade and industry minister, who released statements saying the auditor-general and the parliamentary committee reports on the arms deal were misleading, based on misunderstandings, careless, and drew ill-informed conclusions.

'The criticisms are both untrue and unfair '

Erwin shared the platform with Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, Mosiuoa Lekota, the defence minister Jeff Radebe, the public enterprises minister.

Their statement is expected to be followed early this week by an announcement by Penuell Maduna, the justice minister, that he has made a recommendation to Mbeki on whether to include Judge Willem Heath in the probe. 

Objecting to the implication that the integrity of government officials was being called into question, the ministers' statement said: "We are confident that the deal is sound and that the process was conducted correctly. Accordingly, the cabinet has made it quite clear that the relevant ministers must personally make representations."

During the investigation a cabinet statement said the ministers were available to testify to the public accounts committee, but that offer was never taken up.

"The committee of ministers which evaluated the deal was not able to input either the auditor-general or the committee, which is why cabinet is insistent that it have the right to deal with many inaccurate assessments." 

'The ANC is not sensitive to external public opinion'

Gavin Woods, the parliamentary public accounts committee chairperson, replied on Friday, saying that the ministers' statement made it "more than apparent that the ministers are not in possession of the extensive information that is in the possession of the committee and have little knowledge of the process it has followed in producing its report".

Woods also strongly suggested that the ministers were contradicting what the committee had been told by the ministers' own officials.

"The degree of inconsistency between the ministers' arguments and the documented arguments and evidence made available by very senior officials in their departments is considerable." 

Woods said that the suggestion that a meeting with the ministers would have a led to a more informed report "discredits the vast information the committee received from their departments".

The ministers' statement said that the "ill-informed conclusions" drawn from the auditor-general's review and the committee's report "fail to understandthe most elementary features of the defence acquisition process" and were "too cursory to do justice to the matter and called into question the integrity of government without justification".

In his reply, Woods said: "While it is better not to respond to the unbecoming tone of these utterances, the criticisms are both untrue and unfair as will be demonstrated in the committee's more substantive response." 

Tension has extended into parliament itself, where some pressure is growing on MPs associated with the investigation. 

The ministers' statement repeatedly said the auditor-general did not fully understand the intricacies of the acquisition process, did not fully understand how the deal was budgeted and did not spend enough time on one issue relating to a contractor.

Shauket Fakie, the auditor-general, said he would refrain from commenting until the government announced whether Heath would be included.

Judge Heath said the ministers' comments related to "the very matters the investigating institutions would want to investigate.

"I am confident that there are sufficient facts to justify an investigation. I had a meeting with the president. It was agreed we would send questions to his office. We have not received anything back yet. I had a very open discussion with the president, but he was not in the cabinet committee that made the decisions on the arms deal so he provided for questions to be sent to his office. They were sent in May last year. There has still been no response.

"I don't think there is any fishing expedition. There are facts presented by the auditor-general and the committee.

"I'm surprised that a matter of this magnitude has been delayed. I don't think they have up to now seriously considered a proclamation - perhaps not until this week."

Professor Tom Lodge, a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, criticised the government for its mishandling of the probe: "The ANC leadership's behaviour invites suspicion that they have something to hide. It's a pity, because I don't think they have that much to hide. So it's yet another case of a relatively good  government that is appalling at managing perceptions.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to limit the damage. At most, retired ANC politicians or non-public officeholders are involved. It suggests Mbeki does not like any political risk. The result is a self-inflicted wound. The ANC is not sensitive to external public opinion.

"They haven't learnt from last year. They have a blind spot with Heath because of his outspokenness. If they give the probe 100-percent backing, it would look very good and underline the distinction between it and the Zimbabwean government. We are damaged by the perception that we have the same problems of governance as countries like that. One way to remove that would be to support a no-holds-barred inquiry.

"We keep hearing that the fundamentals are in place, but they're not. When a government gives the appearance of corruption, it reflects badly on our economic and financial management. That's going to be the perception," Lodge said.

With acknowledgement to John Matisonn, Sam Sole and the Sunday Independent.