Apartheid's dodgy deals continue to haunt SA

By Michael Morris Time of article published Jun 5, 2006

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It was a lonely death on a country road. Somewhere on a quiet stretch of the route south from Rundu to Grootfontein, a man, driving alone one day in the late 1980s, died in a collision with a grader that swung suddenly into the path of his car.

The man's name was Muller, or it could have been Mulder.

Colonel Jan Breytenbach wasn't entirely sure which it was.

What he did know was that this man was a nature conservation official and that, beside him on the passenger seat, was a briefcase that apparently contained an audio tape bearing damning evidence against senior officers of the South African forces in Namibia, and conceivably, against the South African state.

A friend of Breytenbach's, Manie Grobler, alleged that he had heard the recording, and that it implicated the military in multi-million rand ivory smuggling. Grobler had urged Muller, or Mulder, to make a duplicate as soon as possible.

The official said he intended handing the tape over to a contact in Grootfontein, put it in his briefcase and set off from Rundu.

When the man's contact at the southerly base heard about the accident, he rushed to the scene, but the briefcase containing the evidence he was expecting had disappeared.

Was it an accident? Was there a tape? Did it contain damning evidence? Who did it implicate?

Even if, in its generalities, the speculation is correct, it was, in the greater apartheid scheme, a small event, the death of a dutiful official.

But bound up in it was - apparently - the whole range of the atrocity and abuse, negligence, brutality and moral failure of a system that was corrupt at its heart.

The SA Defence Force's involvement in the ivory trade to help finance civil wars in Angola and Mozambique formed but a part of a staggeringly costly clandestine programme over two decades that was intended to sustain the illegitimate power of an embattled state by secret means, but simultaneously stimulated the venal impulses of politicians, officials, soldiers, businessmen - and even liberation movement cadres - who were able to exploit ever-widening opportunities for self-enrichment.

It involved every sphere of the economy, public and private, and the cost to South Africa is estimated to run into billions of rands.

Yet, what we know about it all, what we can be sure of, remains sketchy.

For all the damning evidence that has come to light in the few successful prosecutions from the period, what we are chiefly left with - as Apartheid Grand Corruption vividly illustrates - is a web of claims, speculation, surmised connections, paper trails that run dead, allegations that are untested and unresolved, and questions that remain unanswered.

A summary of the case studies gives some idea of the breadth and depth of some of the unresolved apartheid corruption:

  • The Information Scandal of the 1970s;

  • The dodgy deals in which former State President Dr Nico "Dr Gold" Diedrichs was implicated;

  • Mysterious foreign bank accounts that evidence suggests contained millions siphoned out of public coffers;

  • The unexplained murders of Nationalist candidate Robert Smit and his wife;

  • The arms trade, sanctions busting and crooked oil deals;

  • Multi-million rand secret defence funds, that were both milked and abused;

  • The death squads, and fraudulent front companies that consumed vast sums of taxpayers' money and were responsible for appalling atrocities; and

  • The wholesale theft of state assets running to hundreds of millions of rands.

    What is telling is that if the report gives an account of a diseased state, it is less an autopsy of a corpse than the anatomy of a convalescent whose hopes of remission are not entirely assured.

    There is a disquieting quality in the report's reach into the present.

    Just as the corruption it details - a mere 18 years at the height of Grand Apartheid - is shown to have its roots in the long gestation of discrimination and the intellectually corrupt precepts of racial ordering from the earliest days of colonialism, so the report also underlines its lingering effects today.

    Its author, Institute for Security Studies researcher Hennie van Vuuren, sketches a bleak picture of the recent past: "When the apartheid state was at its most repressive, it was also at its most corrupt" - a state "criminalised by an elite that was not only bent on retaining exclusive political power, but also wished to profit handsomely while doing so".

    When its "grip on power was waning the elite stepped up its efforts to plunder the country, moving money abroad, subverting secret funds and engaging in economic activities that would have a devastating long-term effect".

    It would "rob the poor of future opportunities, while entrenching old elites. These activities were criminal even by the apartheid state's skewed sense of legality".

    Tellingly, however, he speculates that the absence of prosecutions "may have been the cost of our compromise as a society in 1994, or perhaps a consequence of a collective fear of what skeletons lie buried in the closet".

    And: "It is also clear that the intergenerational nature of corruption means that some of those who were involved in corruption before 1994 now profit from the fruits of democracy. These are powerful interest groups that any society would find difficult to challenge."

    Van Vuuren also highlights the banning of respected financial journalist Alan Greenblo's book on controversial hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, Kerzner - Unauthorised, in 1997; the fact that - enough amnesties were critical to the process - no fraud prosecutions were contemplated after the disclosure in the past few years of the mind-boggling R68,6-billion that South Africans had squirrelled away overseas, and the fact that the "unfettered and draconian powers" that the Reserve Bank was granted over foreign currency transactions under apartheid, remain unaltered.

    And, finally, it seems ironic that the very researching of this report was constrained by limits on access to information ... from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission archives.

    Researchers discovered, to their surprise, no doubt, that certain information was only available on the basis of a special "access to information request".

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