According to former president Jacob Zuma, the Seriti commission's findings 'bring to finality the allegations and claims of wrongdoing’ in the arms deal procurement, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)
According to former president Jacob Zuma, the Seriti commission's findings 'bring to finality the allegations and claims of wrongdoing’ in the arms deal procurement, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Revisiting the Arms Deal whitewash

By Brij Maharaj Time of article published Jun 12, 2019

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On April 21, 2016 an innovative commercial product was launched in South Africa - the new, improved Seriti washing powder which washes whiter than white. It was packed with nano- detergents with supernatural powers which ensure that even the whiff of evil and corruption simply vanishes, and never ever returns.

Inevitably, South African politicians, especially those from the governing party who feed from the trough, were falling over themselves to acquire this miracle product that could cleanse and purify body, mind and soul. The Guptas may most probably argue that this is the equivalent to bathing in the Ganges (which would wash away all sins and turn malefactors into saints).

It is well known that arms deals are murky and dirty, involving shady middlemen (and women), and their political equivalents, peddling weapons of war and destruction, for huge kick-backs from the public purse. The Bofors case in India is a good example, with remarkable parallels with the South African arms deal scandal.

In 1986 India contracted Sweden arms manufacturer AB Bofors to supply $1.4billion (R20.84bn) worth of arms. However, in 1987 a Swedish radio report “claimed that Bofors paid kickbacks, amounting to Rs640million, to top Indian politicians and key defence officials to secure the deal”. It was alleged that Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman with close links to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s family, was the middleman.

During Rajiv Gandhi’s stint as prime minister, Quattrocchi exerted “enormous powers over ministers and top bureaucrats. Quattrocchi even secured unprecedented access to confidential information sent to the prime minister’s office, and to the eternal consternation of bureaucrats, could recount to top bureaucrats the confidential notings that they had made on files they sent to their ministers”. (And in South Africa we have the Guptas!)

The November 1989 Congress party defeat in the Lok Sabha elections was directly linked to the Bofors scandal. Former Central Bureau of Investigation director Dr AP Mukherjee wrote in his book, Unknown Facets of Rajiv Gandhi, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta, published in 2013, that “Rajiv Gandhi wanted commission paid by defence suppliers to be used exclusively for the purpose of meeting expenses of running the Congress party”. (Sound familiar?) Notwithstanding the growing evidence, there was a reluctance across the political and ideological spectrum to enthusiastically and vigorously investigate the Bofors scandal.

Like in South Africa, in India courageous investigations and reporting by a young, fearless journalist - Chitra Subramaniam, working for The Hindu  newspaper - played a critical role in exposing the Bofors arms deal scandal. (A free press, independent judiciary and robust civil society are the main reasons why India remains the world's largest democracy, and South Africa the youngest).

As in the South African case, the stench lingered for decades and evidence emerged of a “massive cover-up and deception”.

The website makes the important point that the “Bofors will - and ought to - remain as a permanent reminder of just how deep the rot runs in our polity, and of the enormous levers that people in power have to scuttle investigation. It shows up how, from the prime minister downward, politicians were given to openly lying - despite clinching evidence to the contrary - because they had their own interests to protect.

“It also shows up an entire ecosystem of corruption, facilitated by politicians, bureaucrats and arms manufacturers and their agents, which compromised every institution of our democracy - from parliament to the executive to the bureaucracy to the investigative agencies to even the judiciary”. Uncannily, this last paragraph could well succinctly describe the South African arms deal scandal.

It is interesting that whenever then president Jacob Zuma and the ANC government had done the “right thing”, they had been instructed by the highest courts in the land to do so, and there's been carping about “judicial overreach”. When he was justice minister, Jeff Radebe said that the Seriti Commission marked “a watershed moment in the history of democratic South Africa, in a quest to rid our nation of what has become an albatross that must now cease to blemish the reputation of our government and the image of our country”.

The Seriti Commission sat from August 2012 to June 2015, and heard evidence from 54 witnesses, including former president Thabo Mbeki, who had chaired the inter-ministerial committee which approved the deal.

The purpose of the Seriti Commission was to “investigate allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety and irregularity in the arms deal package”.

On April 21, 2016, president Zuma announced that the commission had concluded that there was no evidence to “suggest that undue or improper influence played any role in the selection of the preferred bidders, which ultimately entered into contracts with the government”.

Furthermore, there was no evidence of irregular payments to any “officials involved in the strategic defence procurement package, let alone any of the members of the inter-ministerial committee that oversaw the process, or any member of the Cabinet that took the final decisions”.

According to Zuma the Seriti Commission's findings “bring to finality the allegations and claims of wrongdoing” in the arms deal procurement, and the “ANC reaffirms its confidence in the credibility of the process”.

However, since its establishment in 2011 the Seriti Commission can best be described as a most reluctant commission, keen on covering rather than unravelling the truth, and the actions of Judge Seriti hardly inspired confidence. There were persistent allegations from insiders that the commission “was not being transparent and concealing an alternative or ‘second agenda’”.

Senior commission investigator Norman Moabi quit because “Seriti ruled the commission with an iron fist and facts were manipulated or withheld from commissioners. Contributions from commissioners who did not pursue the ‘second agenda’ were frequently ignored”.

Others who resigned included legal researcher Kate Painting, commissioner Judge Francis Legodi, and chief evidence leader Tayob Aboobaker.

Two evidence leaders advocates, Barry Skinner and Carol Sibiya, resigned because “Judge Willie Seriti denied them the right to re-examine witnesses, even though it was a crucial part of their job. They claimed that vital evidence was withheld from them and that they were aware of duplicity at the commission. They also criticised Seriti’s decision not to permit as evidence a damning report that showed that German arms dealer Ferrostaal allegedly paid R300m to influence senior politicians to secure the sale of submarines to South Africa”. This “nullifies the very purpose for which the commission was set up”.

In 2014, ex-ANC MP and arms deal critic Andrew Feinstein said he could not “co-operate with an institution that is so deeply compromised that its primary outcome will be to cover up the facts the commission is no longer salvageable”. The warnings of a “whitewash” were in the air almost since the inception of the commission.

Lawyers for Human Rights argued that: “The commission should be leading the struggle for openness and transparency to ensure it fulfils its mandate and get to the bottom of the controversial arms deal, something it has so far failed to do, undermining the public's right to know the truth. ”

The Right2Know Campaign contended that the Seriti Commission had not acted fairly and justly: “We have seen huge amounts of evidence being kept away from the public and hostility towards whistle-blowers and critics of the deal.”

Both organisations applied to the high court in Pretoria to review and set aside the findings of the Seriti Commission, which will be heard on today and tomorrow, and their key contention is that “the Seriti Commission failed miserably to conduct the most routine of investigations, arriving at the implausible conclusion that there was no evidence of corruption in the arms deal”.

* Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Mercury

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