Probe into SA arms deal likely to be thwarted

A combination of the Scorpions’ demise, stonewalling by South Africa’s Justice Department and a pending United Kingdom deal with arms manufacturer BAE-Systems may finally pull the plug on South Africa’s ailing arms-deal investigation, report Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer.

In February 2008 the Scorpions launched a re-investigation of the dormant BAE leg of the arms-deal probe. The UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had informally given the Scorpions new evidence of huge commissions paid by BAE, including to former Ministry of Defence adviser Fana Hlongwane. But the Scorpions faced persistent resistance from the South African Justice Department in their attempts to exchange evidence.

Justice Director General Menzi Simelane, the gatekeeper for such international cooperation, said South African law did not allow the informal exchange of information between the two agencies.
He even travelled to Britain to meet the SFO in a bid to persuade it to drop its South African probe.

In response, the Scorpions applied to a South African judge to issue a formal letter of request for access to the British evidence. But it is understood that this letter was not forwarded by the Department of Justice to the SFO.

A similar request for foreign assistance drafted by the Scorpions in relation to the investigation of the corvette deal with German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp is also understood to be gathering dust. German investigators dropped their investigation in 2008, partly in response to South Africa’s lack of cooperation, but indicated they would make their evidence available to investigators if they received a formal request.

The National Prosecuting Authority this week parried attempts to clarify the status of cooperation with the SFO and German investigators.

“We are not at liberty to share with the media details of our engagements with [the Justice Department] and any foreign authorities on matters under investigations, even if our advocates were dealing with those matters,” NPA spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga said.

Tlali Tlali, the Justice Department spokesperson, failed to respond.

Meanwhile, the Scorpions’ termination has left just one investigator continuing with the arms-deal investigation. And now a looming UK deal with BAE may shut off information from the SFO probe. This week UK press reports said BAE had been given until the end of this month to accept a plea bargain offered by the SFO’s new director, Richard Alderman.

London’s Times newspaper quoted sources close to the fraud office as suggesting it may go after BAE for “procedural” failings, such as the tax treatment of commissions paid to middlemen. This would allow BAE to pay a fine without admitting guilt in corruption. This would be similar to the settlement reached with ThyssenKrupp.

BAE has consistently said it broke no laws at the time of the arms sales.

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung.
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