Former minister Ronnie Kasrils' usefulness as a witness at the arms deal inquiry has been called into question.
In early 1998, about a year-and-eight-months before the arms deal contracts were signed, former minister of defence, Joe Modise, made a strange, albeit throwaway remark about a mysterious R6-billion investment that South Africa expected would come its way.
The Arms Procurement Commission is furiously trying to find out what this investment was for. Yet judging by Friday’s proceedings, any hope of a forthcoming explanation for Modise’s decisions, and any attempt to account for them, died with the minister in 2001.
The investment is believed to have been related to the arms deal, and possibly the offset packages, and was secured by former Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin.
But Modise did not want this investment made public, despite the enormous figure attached to it.
His deputy, Ronnie Kasrils was present at the meeting, and this was one of the reasons he was called to testify at the Arms Procurement Commission in Pretoria on Friday.
The mere posing of this question may have cast doubt on the usefulness of Kasrils as a witness.
Kasrils made it abundantly clear to the commission that he was not prepared to answer to Modise.
He said he could not answer for the minister, as deputy ministers are simply not privy to all decisions taken by their political principles.
As a deputy minister, Kasrils was also not a cabinet member, so he could not have been privy to the decisions taken by Nelson Mandela’s administration at the time.
‘Of little use’
During evidence leading on Friday, Kasrils’ attorney, advocate Marumo Moerane, spelled this out in no uncertain terms when he said Kasrils could not be asked about Modise’s decisions.
This is one of the central reasons the commission called Kasrils: to provide some insight into Modise’s decision making when the deals were negotiated. Now, it appears Kasrils will be of little use in that regard, except to confirm that, from a policy perspective, the defence force felt it desperately needed arms in the early 1990s, despite facing no obvious threat.
The commission is still in phase one of its inquiry, and is thus examining the rationale behind the arms deal. The allegations of fraud and corruption will be dealt with in phase two, likely to start mid-July. This is also one of the reasons Kasrils was called.
Kasrils told the commission on Friday that he had great faith in former president Nelson Mandela, and the team of ministers negotiating the deal.
While finding the money to purchase the planes was clearly a problem, Erwin was convinced that the offsets would make the purchases worthwhile, and Kasrils believed him.
Kasrils also confirmed what previous defence force witnesses have said: that the defence force’s equipment was woefully inadequate at the time and needed to be replaced.
Commission chairperson, Judge Willie Seriti, has made it clear he will not put allegations of fraud and corruption to any phase one witness, so Kasrils is unlikely to have to answer for any of the allegations of wrongdoing that have for years circled Modise, even when cross-examined by the likes of Terry Crawford-Browne.
Kasrils was presented with the minutes from meetings of the Council of Defence, a body that he occasionally chaired, when asked to do so by Modise.
Advocate Simmy Lebala, evidence leader at the commission, wanted to interrogate these minutes, in a line of questioning that did not impress the commissioners.
Seriti seemed confused by Lebala’s line of questioning, and at times said he could not follow it. Lebala said the rationale for the questions would become clearer once the evidence leaders made their final submissions to the commission. For now, Lebala said it was crucial that this evidence was placed on the record, and Seriti tangentially allowed him to continue.
At the heart of Lebala’s questioning was the decision to send out Requests For Information (RFI), to eleven countries and potential suppliers of arms, in February 1998.
These requests were sent out at least two months before the Defence Review, the policy document underpinning the need to purchase arms, was finalised.
Lebala said this “raised eyebrows”, as the purchase of the corvettes was delayed precisely so that the Defence Review could be completed.
But Kasrils could only guess what was intended by comments made by those present at the meetings or could not remember in what context the remarks were made.
However, he said there was nothing untoward in sending out the RFIs before the policy document was completed. This was because the RFIs were merely a “window-shopping” exercise, he said.
“By the time we (sent out the RFIs there were so many countries, including the eleven, knocking on our door. The RFIs were a way of asking these countries what they could provide. They (the RFIs) were not binding and did not contradict the Defence Review,” Kasrils explained.
Lebala also asked him about mention made in the Council of Defence meeting to an investment worth R6-billion. In the meeting, Joe Modise said this figure should not be made public.
Kasrils said this question should be put to Erwin, who testified earlier this year, but guessed that this figure was related to the offset deals. The minutes also revealed that, at the time, government estimated the total arms deal package to be worth R26-billion.
In the meeting, Erwin was asked if he thought this amount was too high. Erwin replied, “No, we should go for it,” and said he was confident the offset deals would be a success.
Context of meeting
The arms deal is now estimated to have cost South Africa over R70-billion, with the last loan expected to be settled in 2018.
At one point, when asked to turn to the minutes of the meeting by Lebala, Kasrils responded: “Oh, please, a meeting of how many years ago? With all due respect, I can’t remember who said what. If it wasn’t for these minutes in front of me, if you’d asked me what happened at that meeting, I would have said, I can’t remember a single thing. It was 16 years ago,”
When pressed, Kasrils explained what he thought the “context” of the meeting was.
“The context was hard negotiations on the whole question of defence equipment. Ministers were talking about how to handle this, how to get the best result for South Africa (from the deals.)
“Erwin was positive that we would get the investment of R6-billion. Modise said, don’t mention that figure, it will show our hand, show how desperate we are,” Kasrils said.
He added, “I’m trying to read into this what would have been in the minister’s (Modise) mind.”