A Grippen jet being transported from the harbour to Ysterplaat Airbase. This is the first of the arms deal airforce jets. Picture: Gary Van Wyk

Johannesburg - Don’t expect fireworks when Thabo Mbeki takes the stand at the arms deal inquiry. During the recent Arms Procurement Commission hearings in Pretoria, his former colleagues have presented a united front, telling the commission that the 1999 arms deal arose from legitimate defence policy, the equipment was essential, the deal was subject to public oversight, and it was fair and affordable.

Even an opposition party leader stood with them.

None of that is surprising.

The commission expects to call Mbeki within the next two weeks, and he’s the last of the politicians who are expected to be called.

The nuts and bolts of the procurement went through the Department of Defence and Armscor structures, but the politicians were the people who authorised the deal and signed it.

And they are all standing by it.

In 1998, the cabinet agreed in principle to do the deal and named the preferred bidders, and it then took a year to finalise it.

The cabinet set up the inter-ministerial committee to oversee the deal. That committee was headed by Mbeki, who was then deputy president, and the ministers who were members were the late Joe Modise (defence until June 1999), Mosiuoa Lekota (defence from June 1999 to 2008), Trevor Manuel (finance), Alec Erwin (trade and industry) and the late Stella Sigcau (public enterprises). Jeff Radebe took over from Modise at some point, but he hasn’t been called to the inquiry.

The committee set up a negotiating team headed by Jayendra Naidoo and also ran an affordability exercise.

The commission has now heard from Erwin, who gave evidence in February, and in the last week from Naidoo, Deputy Minister of Defence Ronnie Kasrils, Lekota and Manuel.

Lekota signed the main deal in December 1999 and Manuel signed the financial agreements a month later.

The man who wasn’t there this week was Modise, who died in 2001.

Although Lekota, now president of Cope, signed the deal, he told the commission very little about it, saying he inherited it from Modise.

Kasrils, who was Modise’s deputy until the change of guard in June 1999, confirmed he got on well with Modise, but emphasised he was a deputy minister and thus not part of either the inter-ministerial committee or the cabinet. By the time the deal was signed Kasrils was minister of water affairs and forestry, so was part of the cabinet, but he didn’t talk about that period.

Officials from all those portfolios – defence, trade and industry, and finance – have given the commission detailed evidence already.

Naidoo said the negotiation process “was conducted with great intensity and professionalism”, and said that despite the tough teams they were up against, they secured good financing terms and saved money.

Kasrils, who shied away from trying to get what his boss Modise was thinking during the deal, tried to remember what went on in some of the meetings and said he was proud of his role in the deal. His evidence took longer perhaps than it should have done, as it seemed the commission’s evidence leaders weren’t well prepared and, after the commission postponed Kasrils’s evidence for the weekend, there were still no follow-up consultations behind the scenes to clarify matters.

Lekota said the arms deal was “aligned to the mandates assigned by the provisions of the constitution”, the acquisitions were driven by national strategic policy imperatives, and he assured the commission that while he was minister the decision on the defence offsets were “well thought-through and above board in every respect”.

Manuel said the deal was affordable, ran on budget and his decisions were made as part of a collective.

The arms deal critics scored some points, but left the politicians’ version of the arms deal essentially intact.

The impression at the end of the week was that neither side – neither the state nor the critics – had moved an inch from their viewpoints.

None of the ministers was questioned particularly thoroughly by the commission’s evidence leaders, with most of their evidence simply following their statements, and at least one of the statements this week seemed to include sections from one of the earlier inquiries into the arms deal, a benefit which probably served to help some remember the details.

The commission wasn’t told about how the decisions were made in the inter-ministerial committee or in the cabinet, whether there was vociferous debate, or how much influence some of the old SADF officials who sat in those meetings wielded.

There were some interesting insights into who doesn’t like whom, with Kasrils sniping at former secretary of defence Pierre Steyn (Steyn had said the decision to buy the much more expensive Hawk fighter jets was based on fraudulent manipulation of information, which the ministers generally denied), Lekota suggesting that there should be another look at corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma, and Manuel taking on the arms deal critics for the “industry” of their books “which all quote each other”.

There was an important spat over access to documents, which has long been a sore point. Lawyers for Human Rights, which represents some of the critics, raised the problem of getting documents and getting them timeously, leading to questions of whether they had ticked off the documents they had received on their list, and chairman Judge Willie Seriti telling them to provide a list of exactly what was still missing, so the access issue could be laid to rest.

Another interesting issue emerged during Lekota’s evidence – that while he was minister, Department of Defence officials misled Parliament. The officials compiled the minister’s reply to Parliament on DA questions on Rear Admiral (JG) Jonathan Kamerman, saying he didn’t have the required Department of Defence permission to get a job with one of the arms deal contractors. Evidence to the inquiry – a signed letter by chief of the navy Admiral Johannes Mudimu – showed Kamerman did have permission.

This incident underlines the odd stance of the government over the arms deal, where officials and politicians appear to have preferred to avoid transparency, even when it might have made the arms deal look more respectable.

After Mbeki gives evidence, the commission will have ended the first phase of its hearings. These hearings heard from the politicians and officials who did the deal, with the focus kept on the first half of the commission’s mandate: the rationale for the deal, the use of the acquisitions and the offsets.

The rest of the mandate covers whether there was improper influence anywhere and allegations of fraud and corruption.

The next phase is expected to be evidence from arms deal critics.

The critics should not expect an easy ride from either the commission or the legal teams representing the state, with the past week’s hearings, when legal teams and the commissioners repeatedly called them to account, a hint of what may be in store for them.

There’s no date set for the next phase yet and the commission’s mandate – already extended once – ends at the end of November and it then has six months to write a report.

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Sunday Independent