Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Arms and the MPs

The most enduring legacy of South Africa’s R50-billion arms deal may turn out to be the terrible injury it has inflicted on our most important democratic institution – Parliament. The resignation of Gavin Woods as chairperson of Parliament’s public accounts committee (Scopa) underscores how much damage has been done by an African National Congress government hell-bent on shielding the deal from full public scrutiny.

The sole reason for Scopa’s existence is to ensure propriety in government’s use of public funds, and has no policy brief. Before the arms deal it had operated in a non-partisan manner under a chairperson chosen from the opposition. Woods, an Inkatha Freedom Party MP of technocratic bent and experience in private sector financial management, was ideal for the job.

Scopa’s decision to interrogate the arms deal – and there is no doubt that such a decision was made, whatever the ANC might claim – was the spark for a co-ordinated government onslaught on the committee and its oversight role. Its call for the involvement of the Heath investigating unit was sabotaged by President Thabo Mbeki; senior Cabinet members were mobilised to rubbish its credibility and competence; the Speaker of Parliament was subverted into a tool of the executive; the independently minded head of Scopa’s ANC “study group”, Andrew Feinstein, was sidelined and replaced by party torpedo Vincent Smith. Assisted by the thuggish Bruce Kannemeyer and other ANC linetoers, Smith’s brief was to transfer sole responsibility for the arms probe to extra-parliamentary investigators. This required the marginalisation of Woods, including attacks on his integrity.

Scopa’s “transformation” into an ANC political vehicle and staunch defender of the executive was subsequently underscored by its refusal to examine the controversy, embarrassing to the government, over the contract of Home Affairs director-general Billy Masetlha.

Having served his masters so loyally, Smith now appears anxious to rehabilitate Scopa. Woods’s replacement is likely to be an opposition MP, probably drawn from the ranks of Inkatha, while Smith talks of the committee’s “renaissance”. But this will not happen unless ANC leaders allow the party’s MPs to discharge their constitutional duty of holding the executive to account. Without a firm commitment to the independence of Parliament, the same reflex to whip MPs into line will assert itself whenever government leaders feel under threat.

The destruction of Scopa will have sent a clear message to ANC members of all committees in Parliament. It may have permanently weakened the constitutional checks and balances so vital to a functioning democracy.

Good riddance to Savimbi

Jonas Savimbi, the Unita leader, was a thoroughly unsavoury man. Students of African affairs have been known to describe him bluntly as “evil”. His insistence on war to achieve his goals in Angola cost more than half a million lives, displaced millions more people and reduced most of his mineral-rich country to rubble. Resultant famine has stunted the lives of most of those lucky enough to survive.

No group – whether the former apartheid regime or, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian mafia – was ever, in Savimbi’s eyes, too despicable to enlist as an ally. In 1992 he defied the outcome of an election in Angola that he did not win – even though the international community judged it sufficiently free and fair. Three years later he again dashed his compatriots’ hopes of peace. So most Angolans and democrats can be forgiven for delighting in Savimbi’s death.

That said, however, our celebrations should be tempered with caution. The absence of this monster from the Angolan scene may not advance the peace process as we would wish. Savimbi was a single individual controlling Unita with whom the ruling MPLA government could negotiate. The danger is that Unita, with no natural successor to Savimbi, will now break up into various guerrilla or bandit gangs financed by the millions of dollars in Unita bank accounts abroad.

On the MPLA government’s side, a different dynamic militates against peace. The leadership of this once avowedly Marxist party has shown a talent for looting oil and diamond revenues that would be the envy of a robber baron. MPLA leaders have profited hugely from the war economy. And their conclusion is likely to be that peace would prove a bad business environment.

South Africa has been arguing for several years that the only way to peace in Angola is for the government to talk to Savimbi. What should the government argue now?

Pale shadows

Affirmative action is killing our cricket team. Only bowler Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs and Ashwell Prince ? the latter two top-scored in both innings ? emerged with any credit from the humiliating drubbing by Australia at The Wanderers. Surely the time has come to include players on merit, and not simply because they are white.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R350 relief grant will be paid into bank accounts or...

There are concerns that post office branch closures will make it difficult for beneficiaries to access the grant

South Africa at risk of spillover from international inflation, economists...

Higher international oil prices, for example, could affect local transport costs through second-round effects

More top stories

Companies affected by unrest can apply for support as soon...

Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi urges employers to be honest when applying for help

Mboweni extends R38bn to cope with double calamity of Covid-19...

The finance minister extended the Ters relief and the social distress relief grant, and also ensured businesses hit by looting can access insurance

South Africa appalled that Israel given AU observer status

The international relations department has released a statement condemning the decision

Coal on a drive to delay its demise

The just transition that is currently being executed is a balance between energy security and climate change, according to one analyst

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…