Two Terrible Weeks for Zuma, ANC
If a week is a long time in politics, the past two weeks must have seemed like an eternity not only for Deputy President Jacob Zuma, but for the African National Congress as a collective.
It began on August 20 when the auditor-general appeared before parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) to answer allegations that the November 2001 report by the Joint Investigating Team (JIT) into the arms deal was "heavily edited" by the executive prior to its release.
The lack of resolution surrounding allegations of corruption into the arms deal was further epitomised by the decision of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, not to charge Zuma despite the existence of "prima facie evidence of corruption".
In 2001, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) said in its interim report on the arms deal that the way in which we choose to deal with the allegations of corruption arising out of the arms deal would be a litmus test for our democracy. This has indeed proved to be the case.
The arms deal has been this government's Achilles heel and never more so than now. Now, when the ANC needs to convince the electorate on the eve of the 2004 elections that we have something to cheer about.
And of course we do, but the problem with the allegations around the arms deal is that if they are not dealt with decisively and swiftly, they tend to resurface repeatedly. In addition, what such allegations do is cloud our vision; they take our focus off the "national project".
So where poverty, inequality and the fight against HIV/Aids, to name but a few, should be dominating the headlines, our minds are diverted to sorry tales of alleged corruption.
There has been resolution neither at the level of the executive's response nor at the level of parliament's response. The arms deal bound this country into contracts for a period of 12 years, being as it is the largest expenditure in post-apartheid South Africa.
As such, we would do well to deal with allegations of corruption with sufficient rigor. To do so, however, requires a joint response from not only the executive but also from parliament.
Parliament, as the articulator of the will of the people, should be flexing its muscles to examine those outstanding questions which arose after the JIT report, and which still linger now.
The only way in which it can be done, however, is if members take off their party political hats and look only to entrenching the constitutional imperatives of transparent, accountable and responsive governance.
The public would thereby be given the assurance that no further allegations would resurface in relation to the arms deal. The perception of corruption is often as harmful as actual corruption. While the allegations remain unanswered, the public will draw their own, often negative, conclusions.
It does not, however, appear that Scopa will be calling for a reopening of the investigation into the arms deal. Were Scopa to seek to reopen the investigation, a full inquiry into the offsets promised by the deal would need to be held.
This does not, however, mean that the Trade and Industry Committee cannot still pick up the cudgels. The basis on which the deal was "sold" to the public was that jobs would be created. It is therefore crucial that parliament examine whether this is in fact happening and does so with a degree of robustness.
The auditor-general, in his presentation to parliament on August 20, raised concerns about the Department of Trade and Industry's capacity to manage the offsets programme.
The real question around the offsets, though, is whether these are sustainable and whether the more ambitious projects which have been promised will be able to be delivered.
In addition, while it appears that there were 6 700 jobs created as a result of the Defence Industrial Participation (DIP) programmes, more jobs were promised. These were promised from the indirect and direct National Industrial Participation (NIP) programme.
There, however, appears to be limited figures (apart from those released after the JIT report) which relate to the number of jobs created as a direct result of the NIP programme.
In addition, certain questions relating to the NIPs and DIPS remain:
That is the level of enforceability of these NIP and DIP obligations? Can these be enforced in a court?
While it is so that penalty clauses have been incorporated into the contracts to ensure that the successful tenderers comply with their obligations, Scopa had pointed out that the penalties were small in comparison to the costs of the transactions.
In most instances the penalties were between 5-10% of the value of the tender. The concern has been raised that many tenderers may have inflated their tender prices to cater for the risk of their having to pay the 5-10% penalties.
The JIT report did not specifically examine the loan agreements which funded the arms deal and its various tranches. What this means is that the public does not know the basis on which the government entered into the loan agreements. How favourable were the loan agreements? To what extent is South Africa binding itself?
Probably one of the most important questions to be asked is whether the money could have been spent more effectively. The JIT considered the Affordability Team's report and concluded: "Ultimately the decision about what the country can and cannot afford is one of political choice."
The question is now for parliament to continue to hold government to account for the political choice made when it decided to enter into the arms deal. This is not the responsibility of Scopa alone but also of the other parliamentary committees. Only if this is done can it be said that the executive is truly being held to account for the political choice made.
As recommended by the JIT report in November 2001, parliament should in addition take urgent steps to ensure that high-ranking officials and office bearers, such as ministers and deputy ministers, are not allowed to be involved, whether personally or as part of private enterprise, for a reasonable period after they leave public office in contracts that are concluded with the state.
The parliamentary Ethics Committee, however, has yet to pick up the challenge of regulating this aspect of South Africa's ethics laws. It is crucial if one wants to prevent a situation of a conflict of interests in tenders.
The arms deal has shown the pervasive role which money plays in politics and the often undue influence which money can have on the political process. We would therefore argue that the arms deal allegations provide fresh impetus for the regulation of private funding to political parties.
There is much work to be done in getting to the bottom of the arms deal. No doubt the Schabir Shaik trial will provide a degree of insight into some of the allegations. The legal process is a lengthy one, however.
The executive and the ANC as a party need to think long and hard about the message it wants to send out to the electorate when it comes to dealing with allegations of corruption.
Parliament needs to exercise its oversight role to further examine allegations of corruption and find answers to the unanswered questions surrounding the deal. As for the public, it needs to decide whether it will accept anything less than the highest standards of governance. Our constitution certainly demands nothing less.
February is the manager of the Political Information and Monitoring Service-South Africa at Idasa.
With acknowledgements to Judith February and the Cape Times.