From the moment the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the weapons procurement scandal of the late 1990s was announced by President Jacob Zuma, there was an element of doubt – doubt of the kind that requires giving the benefit of it.
You had to suspend disbelief to expect the commission would indeed be allowed to spring-clean what Zuma’s predecessor ANC administrations repeatedly, even assiduously kept swept under the carpet.
Yet, by and large, the media – along with arms deal activists like Terry Crawford-Browne and Richard Young – were prepared to give Zuma the benefit of that doubt, and to extend a certain store of goodwill to the commission.
That goodwill is rapidly running dry, as Crawford-Browne made clear this week when he released a contents summary of a submission the commission explicitly forbade him from making public.
But even before Crawford-Browne’s gesture of defiance, his fellow fly in the ointment of government dilatoriness, Young, registered his scepticism by declining to make a formal submission at all, saying he would prefer to be subpoenaed to hand over the voluminous evidence of skulduggery in his possession.
Effectively, though they have followed different strategies in achieving this, both have placed the commission on terms. They have insisted that the commission go about its work in such a way that it answers to the South African public and to the democracy, and is not perverted to merely serve the political interests of the president and president’s men like Mac Maharaj.
The message to be extracted is that the credibility of the commission is no longer a given.
Credibility will have to be earned, and it will only be earned if South Africans are privy to its workings and in a position to judge for themselves. Bluntly put, the commission must do as much of its work as possible in public.
Reporting to the president without accounting at the same time to South Africa travesties the spirit in which the announcement of the commission was received. Worse, it will feed a growing perception that a credulous public has been conned yet again.