'Sick and Tired' of Arms Row
Mail and Guardian
Parliament's standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) moved to close, once and for all, its chapter on the controversial multibillion-rand arms deal - and to reaffirm its own integrity. It will table a resolution in the National Assembly insisting on Auditor General Shauket Fakie's integrity - and officially dismissing media reports that the final arms report was edited.
It will also wash its hands of any further detailed investigation, referring all new corruption allegations to the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP).
Fakie has been dogged by claims that the November 2001 joint investigation team (JIT) report on the arms deal, which cleared the government of any wrongdoing, was heavily edited before its release. Scopa at first said it would examine drafts of the report to make a determination on the matter, but instead this week accepted Fakie's own evidence before the committee that the changes to the report were simply a matter of format.
Fakie also moved to head off further criticism. In his special report to the committee, Fakie invoked Parliament's Rule 66, which bans MPs from commenting on the competence or honour of a judge or office-holder in bodies such as Scopa. He named Democratic Alliance MP Raenette Taljaard, Inkatha Freedom Party MP and ex-Scopa chairperson Gavin Woods and United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa as contravening Rule 66.
Fakie said that such criticism "is causing damage to an institution critical to democracy". "I am concerned that there has been an effort by certain individuals to discredit me and my office," Fakie added later. "I rely on Parliament to protect the integrity and honour of the Office of the Auditor General as a constitutional institution."
Claims that the JIT report had been "doctored" emerged after Richard Young of C2I2 Systems (sic), an unsuccessful bidder, obtained earlier drafts of the report. Young is suing the Department of Defence for loss of earnings.
For almost three years, the arms procurement package and how Parliament should exercise oversight has sparked controversy. Scopa split along party lines and its work was paralysed. ANC co-chair Andrew Feinstein resigned. Woods followed suit months later, amid claims of political interference.
In June this year further controversy erupted when it was claimed the JIT report had been "doctored". Scopa members at first seemed reluctant to probe the issue, citing "lack of substantiation". It said the committee should not be forced to deal with matters on the basis of media reports, and felt the matter was sub judice.
The issue was referred to Speaker Frene Ginwala, who told Scopa it could investigate. But after calling Fakie, Scopa last week decided not to look at the draft report.
At the start of the controversy, Scopa had recommended a joint investigation by four agencies: the auditor general, the public protector, the NDPP, and the special investigation unit (SIU) - then headed by Judge Willem Heath. But the SIU never received the presidential proclamation it needed to act.
And at this point things started to go "horribly wrong", admitted Fakie on Wednesday: "Ever since the SIU was excluded there was a whole lot of mistrust, speculation."
Earlier he told Scopa he stood by the final report, and there was no cover-up: the changes from the draft to the final report were merely questions of format and making the report more "user-friendly". Scopa accepted this explanation and has made no further attempt to examine the material on which the relevant media reports were based.
Wednesday's proceedings left many opposition party MPs dissatisfied. They described the meeting as shallow and "a PR platform for the auditor general". While British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spin doctor may have "sexed up" claims of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Fakie had "sexed down" claims of arms deal corruption and the editing of the report, said one.
Yet some ANC MPs expressed frustration that Scopa was still bogged down by the arms deal. As ANC
MP Pierre Gerber put it, "This arms deal has become the most transparent arms deal in the history of this country. The public out there is getting tired - we're also sick and tired of this arms deal. It would be good if we could file this arms deal once and for all."
With acknowledgements to Marianne Merten and the Mail and Guardian.