Arms deal probe hits snag

By Time of article published Jun 1, 2012

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Ivor Powell

The arms deal probe hit new snags yesterday with news that two key members of Judge Willie Seriti’s team have been axed – one for his links with one of the arms companies and the other for taking public money for a probe into KwaZulu-Natal police and failing to deliver any results.

The axing of two of the three evidence leaders in the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the arms deal of the late 1990s came as a result of normal vetting and probity-checking processes, according to commission spokesman William Baloyi.

Appointed seven months ago, in November 2011, the commission of inquiry into South Africa’s notorious strategic weapons procurement packages has drawn growing criticism for alleged dilatoriness and heel-dragging.

Questions have also been raised about the appropriateness of the original staffing – with attention being drawn to the fact that the senior evidence leader was also a presidential appointment to the Judicial Services Commission, and the alleged personal relationship between President Jacob Zuma and late commission secretary Mvuseni Ngubane.

The commission was appointed by Zuma on the last day left to him to respond to a Constitutional Court challenge by arms deal activist Terry Crawford-Browne and others.

The commission has now used up more than a quarter of the two years allocated to complete its work and report back to Zuma – without yet launching or embarking on its programme of public hearings.

Confirming yesterday that advocates Vas Soni and Sthembiso Mdladla – slotted for the key role of leading and assessing evidence – were “no longer part of the staff complement”, Baloyi declined, however, to comment on the reasons.

“In the life of a commission, persons earmarked to play a particular role have to be subjected to other processes – HR checks, vetting processes, discussions where certain disclosures might be made,” Baloyi said.

“Ultimately the decision is at the discretion of the commission chairperson.”

Contacted for comment, Soni confirmed that in recent meetings with Judge Willie Seriti, questions had been raised about his having represented the French arms company manufacturer Thint (formerly Thompson CSF) in the wake of searches by the now defunct Directorate of Special Operations.

“Yes, the issue was raised as a problem in relation to my functioning as evidence leader to the commission,” Soni said. “Frankly, I didn’t see it as something that would compromise my independence, but Judge Seriti clearly did.”

Soni said he had not been informed of his removal from the Seriti team.

In the case of Mdladla, according to a report in the Financial Mail, it was reporting by the Cape Times’s sister newspaper, The Mercury, that set off the alarm bells.

In an article in March this year, the Mercury reported that seven years ago, Mdlala had been appointed to head up a high-level inquiry into service delivery and efficiency in the police in KwaZulu-Natal – in the wake of a series of scandals including deaths in detention, rampant lawsuits against serving members of SAPS as a result of alleged abuses of power, and the like.

Funded to the tune of R10 million – with R2.4m going to Mdladla himself – the inquiry never resulted in any report-back to the provincial legislature.

Mdladla said he had no comment at all on his axing.

Saying it is “imperative that the integrity of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Arms Deal should be beyond question”, DA Defence spokesman David Maynier questioned, however, why it has taken so long to get the commission’s house in order.

“The fact that advocate Sthembiso Mdlala was involved in a dodgy provincial commission of inquiry in KwaZulu-Natal was public knowledge when he was appointed,” Maynier observed.

The Institute for Accountability’s Paul Hoffman said he welcomed the moves.

“It seems to me that Judge Seriti has applied his mind – to possible conflicts of interest and to the suitability of candidates to undertake the work of the commission,” Hoffman said.

“Only good can come of it, as long as the probity and integrity of new appointees is beyond question.”

For his part, Baloyi remained upbeat on the commission’s future.

He said the “road map” for the commission’s work was still being followed, and a budget of R40m was available for it to grind into motion.

Moves to appoint new evidence leaders were already “advanced”, according to Baloyi.

Baloyi also said that following the death of commission secretary Mvuseni Ngubane two weeks ago, apparently a suicide, a new commission secretary had been identified and would in all probability be appointed in forthcoming weeks.

He added that the long-delayed commission was in the “conclusive phases” of moving into permanent premises before calling public hearings.

It currently occupies temporary offices at Pretoria’s Fort Klawerkop.

While he would not be drawn on exactly when the commission would move to the next level, Baloyi indicated it could be within the next two weeks.

He said that despite the long lead-in, the commission remained on track– by its own reckoning – to complete its work by November 2013.

Baloyi called on concerned parties to make submissions to the commission in advance of a deadline of July 30.

l Meanwhile, it was recorded in Parliament yesterday that National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu had received a letter from Judge Seriti.

In the letter, dated May 15, Seriti asks for copies of all reports, documents and other relevant information generated by or submitted to Parliament or any of its committees related to the arms deal “prior to and after the acquisition of the military equipment in question”.

Seriti also requested the names and contact details of the members of the parliamentary committees “seized with the issues relating to the procurement of the arms in question”.

His letter set a June 15 deadline for receipt of the information.

Additional reporting by Gaye Davis and Wendy Jasson da Costa

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