Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-01-16 Reporter: Editor:

Transparency an Economic Fundamental

Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-01-16
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PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki is jutifiably concerned at the lack of foreign investment in SA, despite the soundness of the country's economic fundamentals. If he wants one plausible reason, he need look no further than Justice Minister Penuell Maduna's call for the Heath investigating unit to be excluded from the inquiry into the arms procurement deal.

International perceptions that SA is not a profitable investment destination may have less to do with the lack of patriotism of local business people than with political misjudgments of this kind. Mbeki could discover this at the forthcoming World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, where he may have to field tough questions on the Heath decision.

The fundamental issue is the integrity of government. Could the executive put aside its distaste for Judge Willem Heath as a person to ensure the most thorough and credible inquiry into the allegations surrounding the arms package? There can be no disputing Heath's weaknesses he is loud and moralistic. But his unit has far greater capacity than the Independent Directorate: Serious Economic Offences, whose role in the inquiry has not been questioned. Nowhere in his lengthy statement does Maduna explain how the probe will be strengthened by Heath's absence.

Instead, what he offers to use his own famous phrase is "nimble footwork".

He argues that Parliament has not instructed, and indeed cannot legally instruct, the president to proclaim Heath's involvement. Is he denying that Parliament wants the investigation to happen? How could he do so, given that the public accounts committee's report on the matter was adopted by the national assembly?

He argues that the Heath unit is overburdened. What then of the Directorate for Serious Economic Offences, which is chronically short-staffed? He suggests that a joint investigation has no legal standing. There seems no prima facie reason why different state agencies should not cooperate, working in separate areas in a common inquiry. But if such a joint probe is illegal, why not exclude Public Protector Selby Baqwa? Maduna also takes refuge in the recent Constitutional Court judgment which ruled that Heath could continue as the unit's head only for another year. Nowhere in the judgment is it suggested that during the phase-out period the unit should conduct no new inquiries.

Dislike of Heath

The irresistible conclusion is that behind Maduna's statement lies a government decision taken for other reasons. Dislike of Heath the man is no doubt one of these, and the judge himself made a foolish tactical error by publicly demanding his inclusion in the probe, rather than leaving Parliament to campaign on his behalf.

But government's grim determination to keep Heath at bay, in the teeth of almost unanimous public opinion, may hint at other motives. There is talk of intense pressure being applied on the ANC members of the public accounts committee, and efforts to sideline its chairman, Gavin Woods. The effect of Maduna's decision is to weaken the committee's oversight role. Does government, after all, have something to hide? Is it trying to protect either its own reputation or wrongdoers in its own ranks?

Although Mbeki has the last say, he is most unlikely to overrule Maduna. Indeed, the attack on the public accounts committee by four senior ministers last week, in conjunction with an ANC attack on Heath, gives every appearance of a campaign orchestrated from the centre. But is not too late for Mbeki to change tack a move which would do a great deal to enhance government's integrity in the eyes of both its citizens and those abroad whose confidence in government was shaken last year by developments around AIDS and Zimbabwe.

Maduna has left national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka in an impossible corner, as any finding the latter makes will be politically tainted. The issue is not a racial one Heath is not seen as trustworthy because he is white. The problem is that Ncguka is a very senior ANC official who reports to the executive. He and Baqwa will have to conduct their inquiry with more than usual rigour, and without the slightest hint of favour to the state or the ruling party.

With acknowledgement to Business Day.