Arms deal critic shoots himself in the foot over wild allegations

Terry Crawford-Browne, who testified at the Seriti commission of inquiry. (David Harrison, M&G)

Terry Crawford-Browne, who testified at the Seriti commission of inquiry. (David Harrison, M&G)

The so-called “critics” of the arms deal are under a great deal of pressure to provide some kind of proof for the evidence they give at the arms procurement commission – whether the allegations originated with them or not.

This is tricky because the commission will not allow “privileged” or “stolen” (read: leaked) reports to be used in oral evidence, making it difficult for the “critics” to substantiate proof for claims they have relied on for their evidence.

Nevertheless, although critics should not have to do the commission’s work for it, they surely must be aware that, if they make wild allegations, they are bound to be viewed as unreliable witnesses.

Enter Terry Crawford-Browne, former international banker-turned-anti-arms-deal-campaigner.

The crux of Crawford-Browne’s argument is that the whole arms deal was unlawful and should therefore be cancelled. The subheading on his statement to the commission reads: “The arms deal was unconstitutional, illegal and fraudulent. (Everything else, including the bribes, is merely commentary.)”

There are some valuable aspects to Crawford-Browne’s testimony. For example, he obtained a legal opinion from advocate Geoff Budlender, who is held in high regard, to the effect that the arms deal was unconstitutional.

This is because the Constitution requires procurement to be “fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective”.

Crawford-Browne also relies on the affordability report commissioned by the government in 1999 and the draft auditor general’s report on the arms deal.

The auditor general’s report identified myriad problems in the procurement processes and the affordability report said the arms deal would at best deliver nominal economic benefits for the country.

Crawford-Browne also gave the commission statements by Gary Murphy, an investigator at Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, and Colonel Johan du Plooy of the Scorpions (now the Hawks). Their combined affidavits apparently detail R2-billion that was laundered by British Aerospace in the form of bribes.

Crawford-Browne also quotes the 2001 draft report by the joint investigation team in his statement. The team was made up of the public protector, the auditor general and the national director of public prosecutions.

But sandwiched between these important points are some spurious allegations.

His statement kicks off with this scorcher: “During 1999 I was approached by ANC intelligence operatives, led by the late Bheki Jacobs, on behalf of ANC MPs. They informed me that the ‘arms deal’ was merely the tip of the iceberg of an interlocking conspiracy led by the then minister of defence, Joe Modise, and the leadership of [the ANC’s armed wing] Umkhonto weSizwe.”

The inference here is that the ANC is not merely turning a blind eye towards corruption, but that it is actively pursuing it to fund itself – allegations the party has strongly denied. Even if it were true, it is surely a difficult claim to make in the absence of evidence that goes beyond one dead man’s mutterings.

Then Crawford-Browne reminds us that, in August 2012, he asked the commission’s chairperson, Judge Willie Seriti, to subpoena former British prime minister Tony Blair, “a man internationally recognised as a war criminal”. This was on the basis that Blair had allegedly exerted pressure on British Aerospace to supply arms to South Africa. Blair is also responsible for destabilising resource-rich countries, Crawford-Browne says.

Now that may well be true, but let’s be serious: Seriti’s 2012 ruling that this was premature was probably correct. And despite its resemblance to another toothless body, the arms procurement commission is not the International Criminal Court.

And this is where Crawford-Browne’s evidence falters. Unfortunately, mixed in with important evidence are allegations that, even if true, are simply untestable. They rely on supposed confessions made to Crawford-Browne, allegedly by ANC members, some 15 years ago, and other anecdotal evidence revealed only to Crawford-Browne, verbally, by his sources.

There is a line long peddled by pro-arms deal members of government: that the critics are kooks who have dreamt up vast conspiracy theories because they wanted to undermine the (then) new ANC government.

A more circumspect approach is necessary from the “critics” to dispel this myth. From his evidence last week, it is not clear that Crawford-Browne is alive to this need.

Unfortunate as it is, when critics give evidence, they themselves are on trial. No, it is more serious than that: the entire case against the arms deal is on trial.

Take for example a line of questioning by advocate Jaap Cilliers SC on October 8. Cilliers grilled Crawford-Browne on his understanding of the difference between bribes and salaries. Making this distinction should not have been Crawford-Browne’s job as he is not in a position to give expert testimony on what is essentially a legal question.

That is the extent to which critics are asked to “prove” the allegations in their statements – whether they made the allegations or merely repeated them is irrelevant. Whether this is right is a matter for debate, but it is the reality.

And so, irrespective of the veracity of the allegations made, hyping up the language pertaining to these issues is unlikely to work in the critics’ favour. If anything, it is likely to feed into the assumption that exists in government circles: that the “critics” dreamt up the allegations.

Crawford-Browne has doggedly pursued the establishment of a commission of inquiry. For this he rightly deserves praise and status as a campaigner for accountability in the arms deal. It would be a great pity if this reputation was undone by his evidence last week.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans


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