Arms Hearings Postponed Without a Word of Evidence
The public hearing on the probe into South Africa's multi-billion rand arms deal was postponed to June 11 on Monday without a word of evidence being led.
A panel chaired by Public Protector Selby Baqwa made the ruling after Michael Kuper, senior counsel for the Defence Department, contended the subject matter in the hearings was fairly complicated.
Kuper said the department's legal team needed at least a week to properly prepare for the hearings.
Granting a postponement, Baqwa said the panel would on June 11 also make a ruling on whether it would allow television and radio broadcasts of the hearing in the Pretoria High Court, as requested by the SABC and e-tv.
Baqwa asked chief investigator Stoffel Fourie, of his office, to obtain the opinions of Transvaal Judge President Bernard Ngoepe and the Registrar of the Court on broadcasting the proceedings.
After adjourning the hearings for 30 minutes, Baqwa said, however, the two were not available. Their opinions would be obtained in writing before a ruling was made, Baqwa said.
Kuper told the panel that the first subpoenas for people to testify at the hearings were only issued on May 19.
The evidence had to be assessed first, as some material was likely to give rise to civil litigation and there could also be a conflict of interests, he said.
Opening the hearings, Baqwa said the proceedings would not interfere with the criminal investigations linked to the probe.
Evidence that might jeopardise criminal investigations would not be exposed.
"Witnesses who might be called during the public phase who might also have been approached in the criminal investigation will not be questioned with regard to those aspects of the investigation in public."
Baqwa emphasised that the public hearings were complementary to the investigation into the allegations of corruption in the arms procurement programme.
Three government agencies - Baqwa's office, the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the Auditor-General's Office - are probing between 40 and 50 allegations of wrongdoing in the arms deal at the request of Parliament's watchdog public accounts committee.
In terms of the deal, South Africa will over the next few years acquire four corvettes, three submarines, 30 light utility helicopters, 24 Hawk lead-in fighter trainers and 28 Gripen advanced light fighter aircraft.
The other two members of the panel overseeing the hearings -- set to continue for two months - are Herman van Zyl of the Auditor-General's office and Dr Silas Ramaite of the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions.
In his opening statement, Baqwa said the hearings would allow the public to be informed of what the arms deal saga pertained to.
The proceedings would not be of an accusatorial nature and should be seen as another phase in the investigation.
"Questioning of witnesses by interested parties or their legal representatives will only be allowed for as far as the issues raised will contribute to the investigation," Baqwa said.
He said it was in the interests of all South Africans that all allegations raised in connection with the arms deal be properly investigated.
Witnesses who were ready to testify on Monday included retired SA Navy chief Vice-Admiral Robert Simpson-Anderson and former SA Air Force Chief Lieutenant-General Willem Hechter.
Simpson-Anderson told Sapa that he and Hechter were to give evidence on the background of the arms procurement contract in what he described as a "scene-setting exercise".
During the SABC's application for the hearings to be broadcast, Baqwa said grandstanding could become a problem if television cameras were allowed in the proceedings.
This could interfere with the proceedings, he told Derek Spitz, for the SABC.
"There are concerns that television cameras have an inhibiting effect on some people and an exhilarating one on others," Baqwa said.
Counsel for e-tv, Gilbert Marcus, contended it would be in the interest of accountability and openness if the hearings were broadcast on television.
"The sheer magnitude of the amounts involved is of enormous concern in a community where there are other claims on the public purse."
He said e-tv planned to broadcast the hearing live.
Television cameras were only allowed to film the start of the Monday's hearings.
(Subs : Corrects spelling of SC to Kuper, STED Cooper)
With acknowledgement to Sapa.