Why arms not ARVs, Mbeki asked

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mbeki arms SAPA Former president Thabo Mbeki testified at the Seriti Commission of Inquiry in Pretoria. Photo: Werner Beukes

Pretoria -Former president Thabo Mbeki was asked to tell the Seriti Commission of Inquiry on Friday how his administration justified spending billions on the arms deal but not on antiretrovirals (ARVs) in 1999.

“It is wrong to only discuss the costs when talking about HIV/Aids, look at government policy,” he told the commission sitting in Pretoria.

“I don't know if this is part of the mandate of the commission?” he asked.

Lawyers for Human Rights advocate Anne-Marie de Vos asked Mbeki how government at the time could say that providing ARVs was too expensive, yet it paid billions on a deal to re-equip the SA National Defence Force.

“The issue is important because if the question of cost in any way prohibited the decision...(then the) R29 billion spent on arms could not have been rational.”

Mbeki insisted the two could not be compared as the cost of antiretroviral drugs was a global issue.

While he was president Mbeki was criticised for his stance on HIV/Aids and was labelled an “Aids denialist” because he questioned scientific evidence that HIV caused Aids, saying other factors such as poverty may be causing it.

His critics felt he and his then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's reluctance to provide ARVs in public health facilities was catastrophic. Tshabalala-Msimang advocated beetroot, garlic and olive oil instead.

The commission, chaired by judge Willie Seriti, was appointed by President Jacob Zuma three years ago to investigate alleged corruption in the country's multi-billion-rand arms procurement deal in 1999.

Mbeki was president of the country at the time and Zuma his deputy.

Former finance minister Trevor Manuel, former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota and former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin attended the commission on Friday.

Mbeki's wife Zanele was also present.

During two days of cross-examination at the arms inquiry, Mbeki insisted that the decision to buy the arms was rational. He also refuted allegations that government officials had accepted bribes during the deal.

The cross-examination of the former president ended on Friday afternoon. He was re-examined by his lawyer, Marumo Moerane.

During re-examination Mbeki said he could not understand why it was being called an “arms deal”.

“There was no arms deal, there was an acquisition process,” he said.

“In terms of the process of this procurement, there were two committees that were decisive.”

The only entity which could make a final decision was the Cabinet.

If there was corruption it would have had to have impacted the committee, he said.

If one member had been bribed he or she would have to have influenced the other five members.

Mbeki said he hoped people would bring evidence to the commission to support allegations regarding bribes paid to officials.

“Allegations have been sustained for a long period of time and without a fact being produced,” he said.

“There must be a reason why in our society people can go around banging drums about these allegations, yet they cannot show proof.”

Mbeki did not say what he thought that reason was.

An application to recall former trade and industry minister Alec Erwin, who testified in February at the commission, was granted by Seriti.

The application was brought by De Vos, who argued that Mbeki's evidence had relied heavily on Erwin's and so it should be tested.

Erwin would come back for cross-examination at a later time when a suitable date was decided on by all parties.

The commission has adjourned until Monday when Dr Richard Young, an arms deal critic, and losing bidder, would testify.

Sapa



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