A Gripen fighter jet is transported from Cape Town harbour to the Ysterplaat air force base. A Swedish television team has uncovered evidence that Numsas support was critical for the award of the jet contract to Saab. Photo: Gary Van Wyk.

Another crack has opened up in the façade of secrecy surrounding the controversial multibillion-dollar arms deal. It came last night on Sweden’s TV4 channel in the first of two special reports by the Kalla Fakta (Cold Facts) investigative team.

The report is likely to have serious political repercussions in Sweden and will reopen lines of inquiry in South Africa. In it, former National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) treasurer Philimon Shiburi and union central committee member Petrus Ngcobo admit that a R10 million handout to build a training school was offered to Numsa on condition that the union support the purchase of Swedish-built Gripen fighter jets.

No official of the union seems to have been party to this agreement between Numsa, plane maker Saab and Swedish metal union Svenska Metall (SM). However, shortly before the arms deal was signed, the ANC issued a statement that Numsa supported the purchase of Gripen fighter jets.

Shiburi and Ngcobo admitted to TV4 that they had sight of the agreement in Sweden as part of a Numsa corruption investigation in 2000, but both Saab and SM deny that this clause existed. However, Shiburi is adamant: “One of the conditions of [the agreement] was that we’ll do our level best in supporting them to acquire the arms procurement [contract],” he told the television team.

After viewing the interviews with Shiburi and Ngcobo, arms deal campaigner and former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein told TV4: “It’s extremely damning that two senior officials of the union who have actually seen the agreement say that there was a direct relationship between the money for the school and the support for the school on the condition that Saab win this particular contract. That just smells to me like corruption.”

According to Feinstein, support from Numsa was crucial at that time for Saab. “If they were going to win this contract they needed to put together a political coalition that would make it easier for the South African government… to choose the Gripen.” Kalla Fakta points out that in 1999, the SA Air Force had already rejected the Gripen and there was talk within the ANC of scrapping the arms deal.

Against this background, the ANC released a statement: “The National Union of Metalworkers of SA have pledged their support for the Gripen proposal to supply fighter aircraft to South Africa.”

It added that the “foreign companies” together with SM would “support Numsa in establishing an industrial school in South Africa”.

But, according to Numsa, no union official was involved in this. Former Numsa training officer Melanie Samson told TV4: “It’s fascinating that there’d been a lot of work done on the Numsa school without the participation of Numsa.”

However, in 1999 the Cosatu affiliate was in a state of flux, without a general secretary. The union’s former general secretary, Silumko Nondwangu, admits that there was “no leadership” at the time. As a result “all sorts of characters” had the opportunity to use the union “to pursue their own selfish personal, economic interests”.

It was Nondwangu who appointed a three-member Numsa team in 2000 to travel to Sweden to try to clear up the allegations of corruption that had surfaced. These included not just the R10m for a training school, but also R40m in “commissions” from Saab and its British partner BAE Systems, possibly channelled through the Swedish and South African unions. Such “commissions”, which BAE has already admitted to paying, are widely seen as sweeteners given to politicians and others who could influence the purchase of aircraft that were both over-priced and unwanted. However, in buying them, jobs were probably saved in the Saab factory.

Numsa was desperate to establish the truth of the matter, but the investigation in Sweden by Samson, Shiburi and Ncgobo drew a blank. The team felt they were fobbed off by both SM and Saab officials, treated to lavish meals, but given no information. They cut short their visit and returned.

Significantly, their host at the time was then SM official Stefan Lofven, who is today the leader of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, who is punted as the next Swedish prime minister. As the SM international secretary in the 1980s, Lofven dealt directly with the emerging South African unions and, Samson admits, was “very close” to Numsa’s first general secretary, Moses Mayekiso.

This name, TV4 says, was included as a signatory on the agreement relating to the school project, although Mayekiso was then no longer involved with Numsa.

Nondwangu’s reaction was that he felt “betrayed” by what had happened. A proper investigation into the allegations of corruption required special skills and “financial muscle”. In 2000 Numsa “lacked this”.

Current Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, who has consistently opposed the arms deal, said yesterday: “I was interviewed by the Swedish television and told them Numsa has nothing to hide. We took a decision to investigate and we rejected the school proposal. We will also co-operate fully with the (Siriti) commission of inquiry into the arms deal.”