Judge Willie Seriti during the Arms Procurement Commission hearing at Sammy Marks Square, Pretoria. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

Pretoria - There were several weaknesses in the way the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the 1999 arms deal was set up, activists said on Thursday.

Former ANC MP and author Andrew Feinstein and researchers Hennie van Vuuren and Paul Holden, who had all been subpoenaed as witnesses, questioned the probe chaired by Judge Willie Seriti.

“We were somewhat bemused when the commission's chairperson stated in a letter to Terry Crawford-Browne that they had seen no evidence of wrong-doing,” the three said in a statement, read to reporters in Pretoria.

“This seems to judge the matters before all evidence has been read or heard.”

The three said they were prevented from cross-examining former trade and industry minister Alec Erwin, who took the stand this month.

“We were very keen to cross-examine Mr Erwin but were stymied from doing so as the contracts on which the offsets (of the arms deal) were based remain hidden from public view,” Feinstein read from the statement.

“Instead of doing everything possible to have this crucial information closed, which in no way threatens national security or defence, the commission claimed no one wanted to cross-examine Mr Erwin.”

Feinstein said in the global arms trade business generally, information which in no way threatened national security but involved “malfeasance and corruption” was kept under wraps under the guise of protecting national security.

The three however disagreed with the proposal that the commission be scrapped.

“It is our view that the commission should be given the opportunity to fulfil its mandate to the people of South Africa,” they said.

“It should repay the taxpayer with the full, unfettered truth of the arms deal so that those who have unwittingly paid for it will finally know what has become of their tens of billions of rands, some of which may still be recouped.”

Van Vuuren said that so far they and the media had had serious problems getting witness statements.

“These witness statements, at the best, are made accessible to us one day before the witnesses appear. It makes it incredibly difficult for any interested party to prepare for cross-examination of witnesses,” Van Vuuren said.

“It's a major impediment.”

State entities including the SA National Defence Force, arms procurement parastatal Armscor and the trade and industry department, had given evidence so far.

He urged media houses to increase coverage of the commission to keep South Africans informed.

“We need people who are able to spend time at the commission, to translate what is happening there, if we want to see the answers to the questions that we have,” said Van Vuuren.