Outcry over defence secrecy
When Parliament's portfolio committee on defence and military veterans scheduled a "closed" briefing on defence acquisition in Pretoria this week, a storm of protest followed. This resulted in the committee's planned oversight programme being quickly revised.
"The department of defence/Armscor briefing on defence acquisition has clearly been cancelled," said the Democratic Alliance's spokesperson on defence and military veterans, David Maynier, after studying the new programme.
Perturbed by the state of secrecy that is now enveloping defence acquisition, Maynier said his concern was that, because of the controversy, the meeting would not be scheduled before the end of the fourth democratic Parliament.
"That will effectively mean that there would have been no detailed briefing on defence acquisition for an entire parliamentary term of five years," he said.
The department of defence's failure to report to Parliament amounted to a wilful failure to comply with its own policy on defence acquisition, said Maynier. Holding up a copy of the defence department's policy book, he said this failure to report back to Parliament broke the rules.
Maynier said that, following most annual report hearings, after every quarterly report hearing, and after Armscor report hearings, he asked detailed questions on arms acquisitions., but "they refuse to respond".
A "crisis of accountability" had developed, and although for the past four years R27-billion had been channelled through the Special Defence Fund, there was a wall of silence.
"A significant proportion of that would have been spent on defence acquisition, yet Parliament is completely in the dark," said Maynier.
There is still uncertainty in opposition parties about who is the driving force behind the closed meetings. "What you have here is constitutional democracy turned on its head, where the legislature is responsible for oversight and scrutiny of the executive, but seems to prevent the executive from disclosing information," he said.
The chairperson of the defence and military veterans parliamentary portfolio committee, ANC MP Malusi Motimele, said the committee had yet to decide whether the oversight meeting should be held behind closed doors or not.
Motimele said there had been a proposal from the committee that the briefing on arms acquisition be held in camera.
"It was just a suggestion," he said. "I don't think it's something that people should be concerned about."
Discussion of whether the meeting would be closed would continue at the committee's next meeting, he said, adding that "reasons will have to be advanced about why the meeting must be held behind closed doors". Motimele refused to say why Tuesday's meeting was postponed, but said the briefing was "not urgent".The committee would decide at its next meeting whether the briefing should be held this term or after the September spring break.
A concerned ANC member of the defence committee said it would be "weird" for the committee to hold a closed briefing.
The member said he was not even aware about the arms deal briefing and had simply read reports about it in the media.
The chairperson could not decide to close a committee meeting on his own, he said.
Maynier said it was possible that the new defence review might have changed acquisition priorities and the cost of acquisition might be significant.
"The fact of the matter is that the defence review is still being considered by Cabinet, and will then be tabled in Parliament," he said. "I saw the first draft, but I have not seen the most recent draft, as it is still with the executive."
Maynier has compiled his own version of the select defence acquisition programme currently being implemented by the defence department.
All the information is gleaned from official documents, but scant detail has been given to Parliament about the projects' budgets and schedules:
- Project Assegaai, the development of the A-Darter infrared air-to-air missile. The project was launched after unsuccessful missile firings in 2012. Though the process for approval was expected last year, no budget has been revealed and no schedule provided. It is not known what the project status is in 2013;
- Project Drummer, which is the upgrade of the navigation and communication systems of Oryx helicopters. This project will have a significant impact on the operational readiness of the South African Air Force's medium helicopter capability. However, no budget has been revealed and no schedule provided. It is not known what the project status is in 2013;
- Project Hoefyster, which is the acquisition of a new-generation infantry fighting vehicle. No budget has been revealed and no schedule provided. In 2012, the military command council authorised the project team to commence with the submission of the acquisition plan, which was later recommended for approval, but was not signed. It is not known what the project status is for 2013;
- Project Vagrant, which is the physical protection of South African Air Force facilities. No budget has been revealed and no schedule provided. In 2012, the submission to the Armscor board to authorise the project's contracting was not placed on the agenda and, when it was finally assessed, no decision was taken by the board. According to Maynier, it delayed the delivery of a crucial capability and the project was heading for a potential roll-over of funds. Its status for 2013 is not known; and
- Project Vistula, which is the acquisition of an operational supply support product system. No budget has been revealed and no schedule provided. Approval by the defence minister of the project study report of Project Vistula has been pending since February 2010.
Maynier has been called as a witness in the Arms Procurement Commission, which was established by President Jacob Zuma to examine the 1999 multibillion-rand arms deal.
Maynier argued that in light of the secrecy around the previous arms procurement programme, which led to serious allegations of corruption against ANC government officials, it was expected there would now be transparency with Parliament on defence-acquisition projects.
"Unless the minister provides a comprehensive briefing on defence acquisition to Parliament, in an open committee meeting, I am going to get into the department of defence's brains and dig out, with a crowbar if necessary, all the dirt on defence acquisition," said Maynier.