Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2006-05-17 Reporter: Vukani Mde Reporter: Karima Brown

Zuma Court Date Puts Focus on Arms Deal Again



Business Day

Date 2006-05-17


Vukani Mde, Karima Brown

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SA’s controversial multibillion rand arms deal comes under the microscope tomorrow when former deputy president Jacob Zuma makes his third court appearance in the Durban Regional Court, despite government efforts to separate Zuma’s troubles from the deal.

Tomorrow Zuma will be indicted along with French arms dealer Thint Holdings and its South African subsidiary, Thint SA, on corruption charges, flowing from Thint’s contract to supply combat suites for the navy’s new corvettes.

Thint was part of the German frigate consortium that won a major part of the procurement.

Since Zuma’s appearance last month, the state has acted swiftly to finalise a high court date and add the French company as co-accused.

With the addition of Thint, the executive’s worst nightmare came a step closer. The inclusion of a company that was part of one major beneficiary of the deal places in doubt government’s insistence that there was no significant irregularity with the deal, and that no further investigation of it was necessary.

One likely and unintended consequence of the Zuma trial is that President Thabo Mbeki will get a reappraisal of the deal, whether he wants it or not.

Critics have long argued that the executive’s explanation of the arms deal left many unanswered questions. Government has consistently said the primary contracts negotiated at executive level were beyond reproach. This was to deflect criticism once it became clear that former African National Congress (ANC) chief whip Tony Yengeni received kickbacks from one of the suppliers.

“No evidence was found of any improper or unlawful conduct by government,” Mbeki said in his speech to a joint sitting of Parliament earlier this year.

“The irregularities and improprieties point to the conduct of certain officials of government departments involved, and cannot be ascribed to the president or the ministers involved in their capacity as members of the ministers’ committee or cabinet. There are no grounds to suggest that government’s contracting position is flawed.” Since Yengeni and others at his level had virtually no influence on primary contracts, the argument could be accepted, albeit with reservations.

However, the successful prosecution of Durban businessman Schabir Shaik, which dragged in both Thint and Zuma, has cast a shadow over government’s line.

That the former deputy president himself is now on trial, accused of having sought a bribe from one of the leading suppliers in order to subvert any government probe of the deal, is a clear indication that Mbeki’s claim no longer holds.

Upping the ante even further are suggestions that the president himself will be called to testify in Zuma’s defence.

If he is called, Mbeki will have to disclose the precise origins of a 2001 letter to the standing committee on public accounts (signed by Zuma), which virtually quashed any serious probe into the deal.

It has been suggested before that Mbeki and his advisers were the authors of the letter, which was later accepted by Shaik trial judge Hilary Squires as proof of Zuma’s intent to shield Thint from investigation.

For the executive, the Zuma trial holds many potential pitfalls.

Putting Zuma on trial for corruption was always risky, both legally and politically. It is unlikely that Zuma alone will be damaged, whatever the outcome of his trial.

The ruling party, the cabinet, the president and other powerful figures in business will feel the ramifications of the spectacle of Zuma’s trial when it starts next year.

As Zuma fights for his life, he will not be open to pursuing any altruistic strategies, and has already hinted he will take the fight to the wall.

The stakes could not be higher for the ANC’s popular deputy president. He now has a little more than eight months to take SA into his confidence about what happened during the arms deal and his role in it. Zuma has consistently stated that there is a “deeper story” to be told, and when July 31 dawns innuendo and doublespeak will have to give way to hard facts.

Tomorrow Zuma has the added pressure of ensuring that his legions of supporters outside the court do nothing further to embarrass him.

Another burning of Mbeki’s image simply does not serve his political cause and only makes him appear the leader of a chaotic rabble.

With acknowledgement to Vukani Mde, Karima Brown and Business Day.