Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-01-30 Reporter: Editor: John Kane-Berman and Anthea Jeffrey SA Institute of Race Relations

Zuma's Attack on Woods Puzzling

Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-01-30
Editor John Kane-Berman and Anthea Jeffrey SA Institute of Race Relations
Web Link

IN THE recent flurry of words over the arms deal, some of the most significant are to be found in the January 19 letters by Deputy President Jacob Zuma to Gavin Woods, the chairman of the standing committee on public accounts.

Zuma's 12-page letter to Woods is both puzzling and disquieting. It is puzzling because Zuma has launched an attack on the committee for recommending an investigation which, until very recently, the deputy president seemed to support.

Business Day reported (December 7) that Zuma "consistently backed" the probe into the deal, and had rejected alleged attempts by the African National Congress's chief whip, Tony Yengeni, to stop it.

Three weeks earlier, Zuma was reported in the Sunday Independent as having rebuffed alleged attempts by the Minister in the President's Office, Essop Pahad, to derail the probe. He was also reported as having said that the president would undoubtedly want the probe to go ahead.

Zuma's letter is disquieting because it is full of distortions and slurs unbecoming his office.

The letter begins with a false assertion: that the committee "stated" that "our government, foreign governments, and the prime contractors, major international companies, are prone to corruption and dishonesty".

Nowhere does the committee's report say this; and if the committee did say this, it is extraordinary that its report went through parliament without debate, let alone dissent.

Also extraordinary is that Zuma did not object to the committee's report and proposals earlier. Alleged assumptions of government corruption and dishonesty made unanimously by a parliamentary committee and unanimously adopted by parliament have lain around for more than a month, unremarked by the press, unexploited by the parliamentary opposition and unanswered by government.

Zuma's use of the Constitutional Court judgment on the special investigating unit currently headed by Judge Willem Heath is disturbing too. His quotes from the judgment convey the impression that the court was opposed to the unit being given any new work. Nowhere, however, did the court say this.

In its report, the committee raises a number of concerns about the arms deal, the cost of which has risen to R43,8bn from the R30bn announced last November. For example, the committee said:

Cabinet had been informed of likely cost escalations, and could have "made the public aware of the fuller cost possibilities of the deal"; and

Government said the "nominal value" of offset transactions would be R104bn, that the overall economic benefit would be some R70bn, and about 65000 new jobs would be created as a result. Yet the contracts set "seemingly low penalties" (mostly 10% of the contract price) for reneging on offset obligations, and this was reason for concern.

The committee gives reasons for its misgivings on these points. Yet Zuma argues it has no basis for its concerns, and effectively accuses the committee of wanting to initiate a mere "fishing expedition".

The controversy over Heath increasingly seems nothing but a smokescreen for an attack on the accountability of the executive to Parliament and, through Parliament, to the public.

A vital component of the democratic process has thus been undermined.

With acknowledgement to John Kane-Berman, Anthea Jeffrey SA Institute of Race Relations and Business Day.