YET more dirt came to light this week on South Africa’s notorious arms deal when a Swedish television channel aired a special report implicating two trade unions and Saab, manufacturer of the Gripen fighter jets.

The investigation, reported in our sister newspaper Business Report yesterday, described a secret agreement between Saab, Swedish metal union Svenska Metall (SM), and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa). Two former officials of Numsa, Philimon Shiburi and Petrus Ngcobo, revealed that in the late 1990s the union had been offered R10 million for a training school on condition that Numsa support the purchase of the Gripens. Saab and SM have denied there was such a deal, but the two officials say they saw the agreement during a Numsa investigation in Sweden in 2000 aimed at clearing up these and other allegations of corruption, including R40m paid in “commissions” by Saab and its British partner BAE Systems and possibly directed through unions in Sweden and South Africa.

The Numsa probe was inconclusive and the school was never built. But the revelation adds another dirty little piece to the arms deal jigsaw.

The story is a reminder to those fighting corruption to focus not only on the people who allow themselves to be corrupted but also – and especially – on the people who corrupt, and who use very subtle and clever means to do so. Someone who would resolutely refuse the offer of money for personal enrichment might just hesitate when the bribe is offered to fund a training school, especially in exchange for what might seem like an innocuous endorsement of one aircraft over another.

Numsa’s Irvin Jim, who has long opposed the arms deal – and what a dilemma such opposition poses for unions whose members work in weapons manufacturing companies – says the union will co-operate fully with the Seriti commission of inquiry. The whole country is waiting for that commission to find answers to one big question: was the arms deal fraudulent and corrupt, in which case we can legally repudiate it, save the enormous amount of money we committed, and, crucially, avoid the even bigger cost of maintenance and parts on a suite of weapons which we probably never needed anyway.