Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2002-07-24 Reporter: Editor:

Too Many Unanswered Questions on Arms Deal


Publication  Business Day
Date 2002-07-24
Web Link


Municipal workers have been lambasted, not least by President Thabo Mbeki, for trashing the streets during their recent strike. Whether they will get away with it remains to be seen.

However, it looks as if government is already getting away with an act of trashing far more serious what it did to the parliamentary standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) over the R60bn arms purchase deal for the SA National Defence Force.

No doubt to the relief of Mbeki and his cabinet, it seems Parliament, press, and public have become bored with the whole affair it has dropped out of the news.

One is tempted to ask whether this would have happened under the previous government. Doubtless, much was covered up, but the press nevertheless succeeding in exposing the theft by government of public funds to finance The Citizen.

Intrepid digging by journalists eventually destroyed the careers of some of the most feared men in the National Party, among them prime minister (and later state president) John Vorster. Here was the fourth estate playing the role of vigilance so essential to the workings of liberal democracy.

Gavin Woods, who resigned the Scopa chairmanship in February after enduring more than a year of government sabotage of his investigation, said recently that he would have been able to carry on had the press continued to play its part in the probe.

Helen Suzman has often made a similar point that she would not have been able to play the role she did in Parliament without a vigilant press.

Scopa never suggested that the arms deal involved the theft of public funds. However a host of questions hovers over it. One is whether the ruling party benefited financially from some of the decisions on suppliers.

If that was not the issue that had to be buried, what was it about the arms deal that caused Mbeki to roll out such heavy artillery against Scopa. What was at stake that led the speaker to weigh in against Woods as well? Were our arms buyers caught for suckers by unscrupulous arms merchants and were they fearful of being exposed as such? Was government simply outraged that anyone should question its judgment or its probity?

In the end, Scopa was forced to toe the party line, prompting the resignation of its ranking African National Congress member, Andrew Feinstein.

However, the questions remain. Indeed, there are now additional questions.

The questions involve three other public watchdogs: the auditor-general, the public protector and the national director of public prosecutions they were supposed to probe the arms deal as a joint investigation team (after the Heath unit was excluded).

Woods recently reiterated his accusation that this team "produced a weak and seriously incomplete investigation", an indictment that has not been properly addressed, let alone rebutted. Nor have any of Woods's more detailed charges been answered, beyond the auditor-general's attempt to shrug them off as "factually incorrect".

A document Woods released when he resigned stated the investigating team, among a great many other things, effectively condoned "well over 50 instances of noncompliance" with procurement and tendering rules.

"In terms of Public Finance Management Act standards, the auditor-general would have had to declare most of the five main transactions as unauthorised or irregular expenditure," he wrote.

However, despite the billions involved, the investigating team simply "rationalised" these concerns away or "dismissed the need to establish the truth".

Woods concluded that the team's report, whitewashing the arms deal, had led to the "whole saga now being buried".

The question nevertheless remains: with the bite removed from Scopa, why did all three of the other public watchdogs fail to bark? Although two court cases are in progress, the issue seems likely to be forgotten.

However, SA has now crossed a threshold. Government has proved that it can pick and choose when it will regard itself as publicly accountable for taxpayers' money.

Such executive arrogance and parliamentary subservience is damaging to both confidence and democracy. It also flies in the face of the principles of good governance that Mbeki, using the New Partnership for Africa's Development and his presidency of the new African Union as tools, is committed to promoting.

With all its strengths, SA ought to be leading by example, not prompting questions about the country's own commitment to clean governance.

Kane-Berman is CE of the SA Institute of Race Relations.

With the bite removed from Scopa, why did all three of the other public watchdogs fail to bark?

With acknowledgements to Business Day.