Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2006-07-20 Reporter: Donwald Pressly Reporter: I-Net Bridge Reporter: Sapa

DA Questions Arms-Deal Answers



Mail and Guardian




Donwald Pressly, I-Net Bridge,

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President Thabo Mbeki's office stated on Thursday that it had no recollection of a meeting held with French arms company Thomson-CSF (now Thales), but said if such a meeting did take place it must have been "in a situation with others or of such import that it held no meaningful significance".

This was the response to communication from the Democratic Alliance's public accounts spokesperson Eddie Trent, who had asked the president whether he had met Thomson-CSF in December 1998, on about the 17th of that month.

Trent said in an immediate response that: "It is clear from this response from Minister [in the Presidency Essop] Pahad that someone is not telling the whole truth. Either Thomson-CSF fabricated a fax [indicating that a meeting took place] or the Presidency is simply refusing to reveal all the facts."

The DA has repeatedly raised the alleged meeting in the National Assembly and has been prevented from receiving a direct response from the president.

The fax referred to was sent by one B de Bolladiere from Thomson-CSF to the South African ambassador to France at the time, Barbara Masekela, on December 18 1998.

It has been reported that another encrypted fax -- written in November 1997 -- uncovered by the Scorpions and written by Thomson-CSF official Pierre Moynot to his superiors in France, showed that the French believed they needed to lobby Mbeki.

Thint -- the South African arm of Thomson-CSF/Thales -- was awarded a R1,6-billion tender to fit the combat suite for South Africa's new corvettes, part of South Africa's controversial multi-billion rand arms deal.

Pahad said in his letter on Thursday: "Once again we reiterate that, as previously indicated, we have no recollection or record of such a meeting. If, as purported in the letter to ambassador Masekela a meeting did take place, it must have been in a situation with others or of such import that it held no meaningful significance.

"The claims made in the encrypted faxes are those of individuals and do not constitute a basis for the claim that the deputy president at the time [Mbeki] did indeed make any such statements."

Pahad advised Trent to study the report of the auditor general into the arms deal. "You will see that at the time of the purported meeting the process was well advanced and that the [then] deputy president was not part of the decision-making process for this level of contracting.

"This matter is dealt with in full in the statement issued by the ministers of defence, trade and industry, finance and public enterprises on January 12 2001. Also, this company was not one of the main contracting parties," he reported.

Pahad emphasised that the presidency stated "categorically" that no such assurance -- as suggested -- was given to Thomson-CSF, or any other company. "Most certainly, the content of any meeting would not have been as imputed by yourself or the documents you present," he said.

He charged that "this matter" had been thoroughly investigated and dealt with, including what he described as Trent's "inaccurate claims" about "interference in the drafting of the auditor general's arms-deal report."

Pahad ended by saying: "We have no intention of engaging further with you on this matter as it is evident that your prime interest is the media attention you seek to attract despite all evidence to the contrary."

Trent, however, said Pahad's response suggested that even if a meeting did take place, it could not have been significant because, at that stage Thomson-CSF was not one of the preferred bidders. "But this is precisely the DA's point -- after the meeting between Thomson-CSF and deputy president Thabo Mbeki, Thomson-CSF's status was elevated and it then became a preferred bidder.

"Quite frankly, the only thing the Presidency's response has achieved is to raise further questions: Why can't the Presidency recall the meeting and why is there no record; Why won't former French ambassador Barbara Masekela respond to the DA's enquires [it is alleged she facilitated the meeting]; and why was Thomson-CSF's status increased straight after the alleged meeting?"

Trent said he would take this matter further with the Presidency "in due course and raise these issues with the minister in the Presidency".

"We will also continue to submit parliamentary questions and drive this matter in Parliament," said Trent.

Call for judicial commission The DA had in February renewed its call on President Thabo Mbeki to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry into certain aspects of the arms deal.

Trent said at the time that he had again written to Mbeki "in an attempt to jog his memory" of an alleged meeting he had with French arms company Thomson-CSF senior executives in Paris in 1998 when he was deputy president.

Trent said he wrote the letter in view of Mbeki's statement in an interview with the Sunday Independent newspaper that he "honestly cannot recall" whether he met the senior executives during a highly sensitive stage of the arms-procurement process.

"I have also sent him the contents of two encrypted faxes, which appear to confirm that such a meeting did in fact take place, in a complete violation of normally accepted tender procedures."

With acknowledgment to Donwald Pressly, I-Net Bridge, Sapa and Mail & Guardian.