In a development that may see an army of political skeletons clattering into the open President Jacob Zuma is to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages, popularly known as the arms deal.
The move represents a stunning vindication for anti-corruption campaigner Terry Crawford-Browne, who has spent the past decade and all of his own money in a series of legal bids to have the contracts cancelled.
Crawford-Browne’s most recent court application formed the backdrop to the president’s decision, it appears.
In a surprise announcement on Thursday the presidency noted: “In 2009, legal proceedings were instituted in the Western Cape High Court asking the court to direct the president to appoint an independent judicial commission of inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing or to require him to reconsider his refusal to do so.
“It later transpired that the Western Cape High Court was the wrong forum to hear the matter. An application was then brought in the Constitutional Court. The matter is set down for hearing on November 17 2011.
“President Zuma assumed office when the matter was already pending in the courts of law. He had previously taken a view that since the matter was the subject of litigation in a court of law, he should allow the legal process to take its course.
“However, he has since taken into account the various developments around this matter and also the fact that closure on this subject will be in the public interest.”
The key development appears to have been government’s growing suspicion that it could lose the case.
The day of the announcement, Thursday, was the same day Zuma’s lawyers were due to file affidavits dealing with the substance of the corruption allegations detailed by Crawford-Browne in his legal papers, advocate Paul Hoffman, who was appearing for Crawford-Browne, told the M&G.
“I suspect their own legal team told them they had a difficult case to answer — and that recent events, such as disclosures in Sweden, made it more so.
Perhaps they decided strategically that it would be preferable not to go on oath,” he said.
In their initial legal response to Crawford-Browne’s demand the president’s lawyers declined to deal with the corruption allegations in any detail.
Instead, the strategy was to argue that the application should be dismissed on technical legal grounds.
In May, just as the case was about to be argued, the president’s lawyers asked the Constitutional Court for more time.
They wanted to deal with the substantive claims made by Crawford-Browne and backed by additional evidence from Richard Young, a defence contractor who has also battled to have the corruption allegations properly investigated.
The government was given until July 28, and a further extension until September 15.
The president will soon announce the terms of reference and the composition of the commission, including the time frames.
Crawford-Browne told the M&G he wanted no part of any puppet inquiry or sweetheart commission.
“We are calling for something modelled after the TRC, with five retired judges and with the authority to grant indemnity if people offer full disclosure — but also with the power to cancel the contracts and recover money,” he said.
The cost of the arms deal, which was signed in 1999, is estimated to have been in the region of R60-billion.
It included the purchase of frigate warships, submarines, helicopters, jet fighters and trainers — but the cost crowded out other defence spending and left little over for operational expenses.
The promised industrial offsets — or counter-trade to which the arms sellers committed themselves, appear to have been largely illusory.
More costly, perhaps, has been more than a decade of institutional damage incurred by investigations and attempts to sweep the allegations under the carpet, notably via the destruction of the Scorpions.
Professor Gavin Woods, who heads the anti-corruption unit at Stellenbosch University and who was involved in the initial attempts by Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) to probe the arms contracts, welcomed the commission;s creation.
Woods eventually resigned from Parliament after sustained political interference in Scopa’s work.
SA public ‘was never brought the truth’
“Its increasingly evident that the first investigation was compromised. The South African public was never brought the truth,” Woods said.
“I can only hope that the commission comprises people who will get to the bottom of the matter.”
He said the timing of the probe coincided with developments in investigations by British, German and Swedish authorities that suggested corruption had taken place.
Current Scopa chair Themba Godi said: “I must say it came totally out of the blue; I had no whiff of it. I have always maintained that unless we probe this thoroughly and justice is seen to be done, [the arms deal] will continue to cast a cold shadow over the political landscape.”
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For more news on the arms deal visit our special report.