Judge Willie Seriti is seen during the Arms Procurement Commission in Pretoria. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Johannesburg - The arms deal inquiry is running into difficulty trying to work out how decisions were taken when one of the key people involved is not able to be questioned.

The man the commission would really like to talk to is former minister of defence, Joe Modise, but he died in 2001.

On Friday, Ronnie Kasrils started giving evidence to the Arms Procurement Commission, which is looking into the controversial 1999 arms deal. Kasrils was asked to focus on the rationale for the deal.

In the run-up to the deal, from 1994 to June 1999, Kasrils was the deputy minister of defence. By the time it was approved by the cabinet in November 1999, however, he was the minister of water affairs and forestry.

That means he was a member of the cabinet from mid-1999, but he was out of Defence and was never part of the ministerial committee (a cabinet subcommittee) which ran the arms deal project.

Kasrils told the commission he enjoyed a good relationship with Modise but was not privy to all matters Modise handled, and, as a deputy minister, “I played no role in making policy decisions at cabinet level”.

While he was the deputy minister of defence, Kasrils sat on the Council of Defence and the Arms Acquisitions Council, both chaired by the minister and which advised the minister on defence procurement.

Commission evidence leader advocate Simmy Lebala SC tried to get an insight into Modise’s thinking in some of the Council of Defence meetings by questioning Kasrils, particularly because of his good relationship with Modise.

Lebala quoted from council minutes from February 1998, which said Modise “warned that the figure of R6 billion must never be mentioned. If we do, we will fail… Our aim remains a one-to-one ratio.”

The same meeting referred to the total cost of the arms deal as R26bn. Kasrils said he thought the R6bn was a reference to offsets but he wasn’t sure; he thought Modise had wanted the full R26bn cost back in offsets.

There was confusion over timing.

The Defence Review, a major defence policy review which included looking at the re-equipping of the SANDF, was passed by Parliament in May 1998.

But the requests for information (RFIs) and requests for offers (RFOs) on the arms deal were issued before the Defence Review was finalised.

Kasrils said the RFIs didn’t bind the government to anything, so issuing them did not undermine the Defence Review process, and there was some discussion at the hearing over exactly when the RFOs were issued.

Lebala said he was trying to establish that the arms deal procurement started before the Defence Review was approved by Parliament.

Kasrils said he couldn’t remember. He said some processes happened “concurrently” with the Defence Review but would be concluded only once the review was concluded.

Kasrils confirmed that funding the deal was a big issue – it couldn’t be funded out of the annual defence budget – and that this would have been kept quiet as the government would not have wanted the outside world to know it would have “big problems” funding it.

Friday’s hearing ended with the commissioners, Judge Willie Seriti and Judge Thekiso Musi, calling on Lebala to deal only with critical points, and adjourning so that he could reassess how to proceed with leading Kasrils’s evidence.

Kasrils was asked to return on Tuesday.

The Star