In a rare public appearance last week, former president Thabo Mbeki made his much-anticipated appearance before the Commission of Inquiry into the Arms Deal. Chaired by Supreme Court of Appeals Judge William Seriti, the inquiry is an investigation into the first major political scandal of post-apartheid South Africa: the arms deal of 1999. (Click for relevant sound effect)
The objective of the commission – also presided over by Supreme Court Judges Henrick Musi and Frank Legodi – is to investigate allegations of large-scale corruption, fraud and bribery reported during the South African government’s procurement of over R30 billion worth of military defense equipment in 1999. Mbeki, one of South Africa’s favourite political sons, appeared before the three man commission to determine whether or not he was complicit in any of the allegations of irregularity that may have arisen from the state’s dealings with French arms company Thomson-CSF and sub-contractor, German company German Frigate Consortium (GFC). This would be done via cross examination by Advocate Paul Hoffman, who was set to question Mbeki on his implementation of the policy groundwork that allowed the deal to happen and to gauge his opinion on the affordability of the procurement process.
According to whistleblower organisation Corruption Watch, if the allegations of fraud are proven true, the Arms Deal would be the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history.
Having commenced on the 5th of August 2013 after ratification by President Jacob Zuma in 2011, the commission brings to a head a political saga that has cracked divisions in the ruling party on various occasions and sent ripples through some of South Africa’s most powerful centres of politics. Allegations and evidence of irregularity arising from the saga have over a long timeline implicated prominent figures such as Tony Yengeni, Schabir Schaik and Jacob Zuma – impacting negatively on the ANC’s international image in the process. The ensuing theatrics and plot twists of the drama have also seen the careers of opposition leaders like Patricia de Lille ignited and the promising political careers of people like former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein ended; to name a few.
Andrew Feinstein, formerly an ANC MP and now a renowned ANC dissident and critic, penned a book in 2007 titled After The Party – detailing how the scandal played out from an insider’s point of view. He resigned from the Mbeki-led government in 2001 after his appeals for a commission of inquiry into the arms procurement deal were then repeatedly denied. Feinstein believes the deal set a regrettable precedent for the tone of government dealings ever since.
“We’ve seen a whole range of corruption scandals after the arms deal and I think that the arms deal and the corruption in it, if they hadn’t got away with it we might have had a very different political trajectory in relation to corruption, so I think the arms deal was absolutely critical in determining the moral fibre, if I can call it that, of the current ANC and government, and that it is the point at which we went badly, badly wrong. I think it’s one of the reasons that corruption has become so pervasive in the ANC and in most levels of government,” Feinstein is recorded as saying. He now lives in the UK.
The saga reached new dramatic highs last week when Advocate Paul Hoffman, tasked with cross examining Mbeki about his implementation of the policy groundwork that allowed the deal to happen, burst into tears while doing so. This is after Mbeki got angry and referred to Hoffman as “offensive” due to the public accountability advocate referring to former ministers Trevor Manuel, Terror Lekota and Alec Erwin – who had accompanied Mbeki to the inquiry and sat behind him – as “minions”. Mbeki responded that Hoffman was condescending and hinted at him being racist. Hoffman, a representative of anti-arms deal activist Terry Crawford Browne, apologised and attributed his behaviour to the recent suicide of his daughter and his resultant medicated state. Mbeki and Hoffman later shook hands. In a statesmanly testimony that started on Wednesday morning, the former president maintained (like he has for many years) that the arms procurement process was rational, above board and considerate of cost implications throughout. By Thursday, he had emphasised that no individual could be held liable for any allegations arising from the deal as decisions throughout the process were taken as a collective. By the conclusion of his testimony on Friday, the former presdient had reiterated, in a long and tedious fashion, that he believed there has never been any evidence of wrongdoing during the arms deal. Like Terror Lekota and Trevor Manuel before him, he emphasised that no-one in the ANC benefitted from the arms deal and that the country could indeed afford the weapons. “A decision had been taken, the national defense force needed new equipment,” the former president said, later continuing: “The cabinet in December 1999 said all of these matters have been addressed. The decisions taken by government were compliant with the constitution,” he said toward the end of his testimony.
Mbeki’s testimony on Friday marked the close of the first phase of the inquiry – the point of which was to establish the rationale behind the deal and address questions of its affordability. This week (Monday) marked the beginning of the second phase of the inquiry, during which people implicated and whistleblowers are expected to bring forth further evidence. Witnesses expected include Patricia de Lille, a long-standing arms deal critic; Fana Hlongwane, special advisor to the defence minster at the time; and Chippy Shaik, the acquisitions chief at the defence department when the arms contracts were negotiated and bought.
Richard Young, set to be the first witness in the second phase of the inquiry, failed to appear on Monday. The inquiry continues.
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