Publication: The Mercury Issued: Date: 2005-01-14 Reporter: Joel Netshitenzhe

Damned if We Do, Damned if We Don't



The Mercury

Date 2005-01-14


Joel Netshitenzhe

Web Link


Joseph Heller in his Catch-22 episodes could have been describing the government's communication challenge in the latest furore around the Defence Procurement Package or "arms deal".

Lead campaigner, defence contractor Richard Young, of C2I2, is pursuing his grievances in court and thus some of the matters are sub judice.

The auditor-general is correctly wary of engaging in detailed refutations through the media, beyond reaffirming the joint report into the arms procurement programme released by his office, the public protector and the national Directorate of Public Prosecutions in 2001.

And so, as the Russians say, Vashka the cat continues eating. Those opposed to the procurement process are having a field day impugning the integrity of the auditor-general, accusing the government of cover-ups and calling for a commission of inquiry.

Silence on the part of the government is interpreted as suggesting that there is something to hide.

Detailed engagement with the issues on the other hand may complicate court processes and detract from the responsibility of the auditor-general to report to parliament in the first instance.

It is a matter of public record that Young initially wanted the contracts to be cancelled and now he seeks compensation: The type of whistle-blower impelled by profound self-interest.

His line of attack is "to prove" that the auditor-general changed his findings under political pressure. Hopefully, Young and his supporters believe, public opinion will be turned and perhaps even that of the courts on the matter of his compensation.

But two matters of principle require clarification.

Firstly, it is the issue of the status of drafts in any working environment and the manner in which the auditor-general's office conducts its investigations. To state the obvious: Drafts would not have been drafts if they were not, as a matter of principle, subject to amendment.

In its routine auditing of books of government departments, for instance, the auditor-general's office conducts investigations by going through documents and interviewing some staff. Then they prepare what is referred to as a management letter, and meet senior managers to clarify issues.

If on any of the draft findings there are factual matters that need correction, this is further pursued by the auditor-general's office and such corrections are made.

This in our view is the standard relationship between an auditor and "auditee".

Related to this is the logic in the Promotion of Access to Information Act which excludes records that contain "a preliminary, working or other draft of an official of a public body"; subject to administrative fairness directly affecting a citizen's well-being. This is precisely because a draft is a draft is a draft.

On the details, Young and his supporters have selected convenient quotes from the drafts to prove their point.

They revel in the knowledge that, given the limitations in dealing with this matter through the media they will befuddle the public and project fundamental wrongdoing.

Confining ourselves to this selective quoting, let us examine some of the facts - the better to differentiate between the fury of a Young scorned and reality.

Differences on what decision a particular meeting took on the Hawk and Aermacchi MB339: ministers who took part in this meeting with officials were also present when the recommendation was made to the cabinet committee and if they were of a different view, they would have stated this.

The decision to select the Hawk went beyond matters of costs and offsets. Indeed it did, as the final joint report asserts - and this may reflect an instance where strategic considerations about long-term mutual dependencies had to carry the day, as is the responsibility of cabinet to weigh such matters.

This is besides the fact of the Hawk allowing for direct transition by trainee pilots to the Gripen and that the Hawk can be adapted to operate as a fighter aircraft.

There may have been concern on acquisition of Gripens because of the shortage of fighter pilots: The first of these planes were to be delivered in a few years, and a programme of training was put in place.

The government is confident that when the auditor-general's office is afforded an appropriate platform, it will clarify these and other issues. In the intervening period, we can only hope that the public is not stumped by the campaign of confusing detail.

Media theory has it that the flight of a story does indicate its worth. There is the flamingo, steady in its trajectory, propelled by facts. Then there is Icarus which ventures dramatically close to the sun and hits the ground with a thud.

And so, from the Friday fanfare in two newspapers, to reference in one title on the Sunday, to attempts by Young and his supporters to keep the story alive on the Monday and Tuesday... by midweek the story was as good as dead.

Indeed, in this instance, it is better to keep quiet and await the formal process in parliament, if so decided upon.

Joel Netshitenzhe is Head of Government Communications and the Policy Unit in the Presidency.

With acknowledgements to Joel Netshitenzhe and The Mercury.