A Chance for Parliament to Regain the Publicís Trust
The initial report on the arms deal, completed in December 2001, was always going to be a work in progress. While some of the findings in the initial report were damning, the report also left several unanswered questions relating to tenders, the awarding of subcontracts and possible conflicts of interest. For almost four years the unresolved issues have manifested in a multitude of ways.
The trial of Schabir Shaik in Durban, the very public row between the public protector and the national director of public prosecutions, subsequently mediated by Parliament, as well as concerns relating to the viability of arms deal-related offsets programmes, have ensured that the arms deal remains in the public consciousness.
Richard Young, one of the tenderers who lost out in the corvette deal, has waged a three- year legal battle to gain access to the draft reports by the auditor-general in a bid to prove certain key conclusions were left out of the final report.
There appear to be a few serious discrepancies between the draft and the final report, relating in particular to the acquisition of the leadin-fighter trainer Hawks. In terms of the intricate process set up to evaluate tenders submitted, the criteria to be fulfilled were technical merits, cost and offset benefits for SA.
In its initial report Parliament's standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) raised a few concerns relating to the awarding of the Hawk contract to British Aerospace as it appeared that, despite the Italian supplier's lower price, the noncosted option was chosen.
While in the draft versions of the report reference was apparently made to preference given to BAE and concerns about "flawed" selection processes, the auditor-general concluded that government's contracting position was in no way flawed and the cabinet was within its rights to chose the noncosted option. In the draft version it seems concerns were also articulated relating to offsets promised by BAE.
In its interim report on the arms deal in May 2001, Idasa said the way SA's institutions dealt with the arms-deal investigation would be a litmus test for democratic accountability. This has proved to be the case. The arms deal has tested the strength and resolve of virtually all of the institutions set up to protect constitutional democracy.
In that report Idasa also raised certain questions relating to the acquisition of the Hawks. Why was the basis for evaluation changed from a costed to a noncosted option? Who made that decision? And why? Were other tenderers told of that change, and if not why not? What were the cost implications for the country as a result of a change in evaluation process? What was the role of Joe Modise in favouring BAE as a supplier of the Hawk, if any? If the selection process was flawed or haphazard, surely this would have had serious implications for government's contracting position?
By its sheer complexity much of the detail relating to the arms deal remains arcane. The public remains unsure of the reason for doing the deal in the first place and what seem to be the unending spin-offs relating to allegations of corruption.
In some ways the latest documents put into the public domain show that the system works SA has one of the most progressive freedom of information laws in the world, and its continued use will go a long way to ensuring an open society with greater accountability in governance. Testing its efficacy in the courts, as Young has done, has provided an unprecedented opportunity for Parliament to re-engage with the arms deal.
The information is out there and deserves scrutiny. The auditor- general remains accountable to Parliament, and should be provided with an opportunity to answer questions Parliament surely must have relating to the newest findings. If Parliament is looking to reposition itself and its role as the representative of the will of the people, this provides a way to regain trust where that trust may have been eroded over the past year as a result of the "travelgate" scandal and some highprofile breaches of its code of ethics.
After the initial arms-deal investigation Scopa was torn asunder by political differences. It has been slowly getting back on its feet. Among all political parties the arms deal has doubtless become one of the most intense and politically charged issues in post-apartheid SA.
It would be naÔve to believe this matter can ever be devoid of politics. The crucial test is whether Parliament will have the resolve to pick up the cudgels and call both the auditor-general and the executive to explain. Since 2001 there have been several opportunities for Parliament to do so; some have been grasped, but with mixed success. The auditor-general's 2003 reporting to Parliament on the editing of the final report left more questions.
To be fair, however, Parliament did not have a full set of documents to engage with, and was therefore unable to deal with the matter completely. In addition, there have been several opportunities to examine the progress relating to offsets. Victor Moche of Denel recently raised serious concerns about the arms-deal offsets in Parliament.
The perception of corruption is often worse than corruption itself. It is clear the arms-deal allegations of corruption will not go away. The system of democratic accountability designed post-1994 will ensure that. But openness is only the first step. It's what is done with the information now made public that will determine whether Parliament, the executive and our other institutions can live up to the standards the constitution demands. Four years on it is not too late to put this matter to rest once and for all.
February is head of Idasa's Political Information and Monitoring Service.
With acknowledgements to Judith February and the Business Day.