Judge Willie Seriti. Picture: Etienne Creux.

Pretoria - Shutting down the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the 1999 arms deal will deny South Africans a rare opportunity to understand the truth, activist and author Hennie van Vuuren said on Friday.

Terminating the commission would play into the hands of politicians, business leaders and global arms companies who are against the inquiry, Van Vuuren said in an interview.

“The inquiry is one of the rare opportunities which we have to get full disclosure concerning the widespread corruption that was involved in the procurements.

“Our focus, as civil society, should be in ensuring that the commission sticks to its terms of reference. We must remain vigilant and continue to monitor its work.”

He said there has been criticism of the commission's conduct since it began its work in 2013. Van Vuuren attributed the disappearance of the commission's hearings from the public discourse to waning media interest.

“Media houses cannot wait to send reporters only when former president (Thabo Mbeki) or a government minister has been called to testify. Communities need consistency in the coverage of a story,” said Van Vuuren.

“Remember, this is a story with an impact on the country and the future careers of some politicians.”

The commission into the arms deal, chaired by Judge Willie Seriti, was established by President Jacob Zuma in October 2011. Judges Francis Legodi and Hendrick Thekiso Musi were appointed to help Seriti probe allegations of fraud and corruption relating to the government's strategic defence procurement package.

Since its establishment, the inquiry has been dogged by staff resignations and claims that its integrity might be compromised. Legodi resigned from the commission in August last year. At the time, the presidency said he resigned because of “personal reasons and had requested that such reasons remain confidential”.

In January last year, senior commission investigator Norman Moabi quit. Moabi, a lawyer and former acting judge from Pretoria, alleged in a letter leaked to the media that the commission was not being transparent and concealing an alternative or “second agenda”.

Moabi wrote in the letter, addressed to Seriti, that he was resigning because of interference and because he had lost faith in the commission's work.

According to Moabi, Seriti ruled the commission with an iron fist and said facts were manipulated or withheld from commissioners. Contributions from commissioners who did not pursue the “second agenda” were frequently ignored.

This week, arms deal critic Terry Crawford-Browne sent a supplementary affidavit to the Constitutional Court, asking it to reopen his case and to terminate the Seriti commission.

He wrote to acting Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke asking for advice on how to get his original case heard again.

“I said (in the affidavit to the Constitutional Court) that the commission had digressed from its terms of reference and has become a farce. They should stop wasting public funds and cancel it.

“The people that are being called to give evidence at the commission are small fish. They had nothing to do with decision making with regards to the procurement,” Crawford-Browne said by telephone from Cape Town.

He wants the court to rule on the contentious arms deal contracts, estimated at R70 billion.

On Friday, the inquiry's spokesman William Baloyi said Crawford-Browne was still on the list of witnesses scheduled to testify during the second phase of the public hearings in Pretoria.

“We cannot comment on what he says or what he is intending to do,” Baloyi said.

The retired banker took Zuma to the Constitutional Court in 2010, in an attempt to force him to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry into the 1999 deal. He withdrew his court bid in 2011, after Zuma's announcement that he would appoint a commission of inquiry into the arms deal.

The Constitutional Court granted an order that the president and the government pay the costs of two counsel for Crawford-Browne for their services. They also had to pay costs arising from a postponement of the matter on May 5, and the costs of all interlocutory applications filed on record.

The president and the government were ordered to pay the party-to-party costs of the friend of the court, the SA Institute of Race Relations.

On Friday, Crawford-Browne said his legal costs remained unpaid.

Senior researcher at Media Tenor SA Stephano Radaelli said coverage of the inquiry would only increase when important evidence was being discussed.

He said coverage had waned as the inquiry competed for space with other news stories.

The commission was adjourned on Wednesday and would resume on February 17.