Let there be no mistaking the moment: the ruling African National Congress, the government and, in particular, President Thabo Mbeki face a decisive test of their integrity and will to combat corruption in the attitude they adopt to the investigation into the R43,8-billion arms deal.
Either they give the investigation, presided over by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, their patent and unqualified support and cooperation and grant it the resources it needs to be fully autonomous operationally or they risk grave consequences for both themselves and the country.
Let us also be clear that, as of now, there is no proof of wrongdoing on the arms deal by any current or former member of the ruling party, the Cabinet or civil service. At this point, the process of evaluating evidence has scarcely begun. But we on this newspaper, like others, have data and are aware of lines of inquiry into the arms deal that provide grounds for serious concern.
They indicate that something rotten may lurk at the heart of our young democracy capable of endangering the health of our entire body politic. Moreover, we on this newspaper are not alone in being aware of recent meetings whose proceedings do little to justify our hope that the investigation into the arms deal is, or will be, free of attempts to hobble it.
In these circumstances, the country needs a clear lead from the leadership of the ruling party and the Cabinet. The government needs to dispel any doubt that it is committed to a full and unfettered investigation by the Public Accounts Committee.
Its members need to demonstrate unambiguous support for one of the organising ideas of our Constitution: that Parliament, in this case represented by the Public Accounts Committee, exercises, as primary representative of the people, oversight over the executive arm of government.
The country needs an end to postures struck by senior members of the Cabinet and ruling party that if not in their intention then certainly in their effect suggest the government wants something less than a rigorous investigation into the arms deal.
We expect Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Penuell Maduna to end his sniping at the Heath Special Investigations Unit, one of the agencies the Public Accounts Committee wants involved in the investigation. We expect him to withdraw his opposition to the unit’s involvement. We expect Frene Ginwala, Speaker of the National Assembly, to stop insulting the nation’s intelligence with a set of procedural objections to the Heath Unit’s involvement in the investigation which, we suggest on the advice of some of South Africa’s most eminent legal minds do not amount to a row of beans.
Moreover, we expect the various investigative elements mobilised by the Public Accounts Committee which include the Scorpions and the Office of Serious Economic Offences, the auditor-general and the public protector to accept that each brings to the probe an indispensable and complementary set of skills and powers. We do not expect to witness undignified public willy-wagging between National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and Judge Willem Heath.
But our greatest expectations lie with Mbeki. He has something to prove. And the president can go a long way towards doing so if he acts decisively in support of the Public Accounts Committee’s investigation whatever the discomfort this may cause old comrades. If he does so, he will be seen to have favoured the public interest over the comfort of elements in his party; he will have ensured Parliament’s and the people’s oversight of the executive; he will have laid down a marker that he will not tolerate corruption of any kind, no matter how high it might go; and he will immeasurably strengthen his own and this country’s reputation.
His first, practical step along this road must be to issue a proclamation authorising the Heath unit’s involvement in the Public Accounts Committee’s investigation. If Mbeki fails the country on this, the damage will be immense. Not least to himself. Of that he should be in no doubt.
Suffer the little children
Losing an eye is a poor way to begin the year, or to end a celebration. Especially when you are six years old. Yet such injuries, suffered by more than one child on New Year’s Day, have become commonplace since the public was reunited with fireworks five years ago.
The health services seem to have little idea what the scale of the problem is. But, though unable to provide statistics, most centres said this week that the scale of injuries matched the 20 or so cases logged at Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital.
There is no coherent, well-enforced national policy on fireworks. The unlicensed selling of fireworks is a symptom of a dangerously unfettered free market in recreational explosives. Some local authorities have successfully introduced strict rules prohibiting or restricting the use of fireworks.
In these areas children have profited from the passion of the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals for the protection of pets. But occasional successes in regulation are no substitute for a firm, clear national policy. The police need to make a greater effort to enforce provisions.
The Explosives Act should be amended to make fireworks and unsupervised children as incompatible as driving and alcohol. The sale of certain classes of fireworks should be banned. Those remaining should be sold only to adults, and only with instructions for their handling and the treatment of those who suffer injuries.