Publication: The Natal Witness Issued: Date: 2005-01-10 Reporter: Reporter:

Arms Scandal Rolls On



The Natal Witness



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Readers with long memories will recall how in both the Watergate and the local Infogate scandals, the initial suspicions that something was amiss just never seemed to go away. Cynicism become a part of public life as people waited for the next media leak or the next set of revealing documents to peal back another layer in the deception and cover-ups that are the inevitable consequence of powerful persons acting with an arrogant disregard for the principles of good government.

The same slow drip of revelation and on-going suspicion has come to characterise the way many view the arms deal saga in more recent times. It has taken commendable persistence, for example, for an aggrieved bidder in the corvette weapons control tender, Richard Young, to get from the Auditor-General (A-G) the draft documents which his office used in drawing up the final report for Parliament which essentially exonerated all parties of any wrongdoing. It's been a painful process akin to pulling teeth - the documents were only made available after the A-G was found in contempt of court for not responding as initially ordered.

The newly-revealed draft report is open to interpretation, and Young is himself an interested party in the matter. If discrepancies exist between the draft and the final version, that is in itself room for concern. Why did South Africa, for instance, have to buy new expensive, and complex, jet aircraft when its pilot training programme was so manifestly run down? Did the Hawk trainers and Gripen fighters purchased meet real defence needs or were they acquired just to gratify certain political egos? Investing in long-range military transport capability has been shown more recently to be a much more urgent and politically advantageous priority.

When it came to adjudicating the various tenders, the documents suggest the process was not "fair and competitive", that key decision makers were misled and that the advice of professional officers was discounted or ignored. This suggests, as has long been suspected, that the arms acquisition process may have been subject to political manipulation.

These are shocking allegations, and the credibility of the A-G's office is now itself under question. His stone-walling statement in response to Young's allegations indicates the degree of discomfort which the A-G feels at becoming part of the whole saga once again. The relationship between a professional watchdog office such as that of the A-G and the executive branch of government cannot always be easy, but in this case the A-G is having to defend his own actions.

The draft documents also have a bearing on the parallel revelations coming out of the Schabir Shaik trial, and the linked issues of the political reputations of those in high places at the time - in particular, the then Minister of Defence and Shaik's financial confidant, Deputy President Jacob Zuma. The arms deal saga still has a way to run, and reputations, whether fairly or unfairly, will become more compromised the longer it endures. In accounting for the expenditure of public funds, there can be no suggestion that the A-G was involved in any kind of cover-up of the truth.

With acknowledgement to The Natal Witness.