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Controversial arms consultant Fana Hlongwane appears to have gone to ground, and arms deal commission head Judge Willie Seriti confirmed that they were unable to locate him.
Hlongwane is likely to be the central witness to the probe into alleged corruption and bribery relating to a 1999 arms contract.
The commission had wanted to send Hlongwane a letter on Friday, notifying him that he would be called as one of their witnesses along with 11 other people.
The Sunday Independent understands that he was not reachable at either of his known addresses, in Hyde Park, Joburg and Umhlanga in Durban.
When The Sunday Independent tried to contact Hlongwane yesterday his phone was answered by a man who identified himself as Philemon.
“We are at a funeral now. I will indicate to him that you called,” he said.
Philemon said he was unable to hand Hlongwane the phone because they were not standing next to each other.
“We are at a funeral. It’s not even in South Africa,” he said. The phone was later switched off.
Judge Seriti said he could not say that Hlongwane was evading the commission.
“As I said, we took the decision that the letters would be sent on Friday after 1pm. We couldn’t find him yesterday [Friday]. So one can’t say he is evading us,” he said.
However, the commission would not hesitate to use its powers to subpoena unco-operative witnesses.
“You can rest assured that everyone who is going to be called as a witness, there will be a subpoena issued. And I’ve got no doubt in my mind that the subpoena we are going to issue will also reach Fana [Hlongwane],” said Judge Francis Legodi, a member of the commission.
Unlike the inquiry into former police commissioner Bheki Cele’s fitness for office, the commission’s regulations allowed sanctions for those who refused to appear before it. “We do have powers to subpoena. And a failure to comply with that subpoena might amount to criminal offence. Unless you have very good reasons why you think not to honour the subpoena on that particular day,” Seriti said.
Asked about a potential witness’s “right to remain silent”, Seriti said: “There is no such right to remain silent before this commission. The regulations clearly state that you will have to answer questions if questions are put to you… although there is a clause which says that evidence that is being given to that commission cannot be used in the subsequent criminal procedure. So the purpose is just to find out what the truth is and the main purpose of that power is to force people to tell us exactly what happened.”
At a press conference, Judge Seriti described Hlongwane as “a person whose name features in most of the allegations as a possible beneficiary of the arms procurement process. He also features as a suspect in some of the investigations conducted in the matter”.
“It is hoped that he will enlighten the commission on the role he played, if any, in the acquisition process and the legal basis, if any, for the benefits derived.”
He joins former and present MPs Patricia de Lille, Andrew Feinstein, Raenette Taljaard, David Maynier, two Hawks investigators and arms deal investigation champion Terry Crawford-Browne on the list.
Hlongwane served as the adviser to late Defence minister Joe Modise between 1995 and 1998.
Hlongwane also acted as a consultant to arms defence consortium BAE/Saab. He is alleged to have received several millions in “consultancy fees”, or what others perceive as kickbacks.
In June last year, Swedish firm Saab admitted that its British partner (BAE Systems) had paid R24 million in bonuses and salaries between 2003 and 2005 for the finalisation of a deal involving 26 JAS Gripen fighter aircraft.
Seriti speculated that those implicated in the decade-long scandal would want to clear their names. President Jacob Zuma, his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik and the ANC have been implicated in the kickback scandal.
Seriti said the commission was disappointed that it had only received seven submissions from the public. Conversely, it was pleased that a number of government departments had supplied the requested records.
The commission said the public hearings would be held between March 4 and May 31 next year in Pretoria. There would be a second phase of public hearings where more of those implicated are likely to be called.