/ 3 December 2010

Secrets, lies and phony deals

For years we have chased hints and allegations, but the Mail & Guardian has now obtained clear evidence of financial benefits flowing from the arms deal to a senior decision-maker. The facts speak plainly.

Siphiwe Nyanda was installed as defence force chief just as key bids for aircraft were being adjudicated and amid an intense ­wrangle that resulted in tender specifications being altered in a way that favoured British company BAE Systems.

For his part in its successful sale of military jets, BAE paid “commissions” of R200-million to Fana Hlongwane through his companies, including Ngwane Aerospace.

Hlongwane, of course, had been adviser to then defence minister Joe Modise during the initial stages of the deal.

What we can now reveal is that after a prudent interval Hlongwane made it possible for Nyanda to spend R4,36-million on a house by using Ngwane to give him a private bond. Soon after that Nyanda left the public service.

He later went to work for another company linked to Hlongwane. It is not clear just what hours he put in there, but the salary he earned must have contributed to the bond payments he did make. And then, on the day Nyanda was made communications minister in Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet, the bond was “co-incidentally” cancelled — and with it any debt that might have remained.

Hlongwane’s legal representative claims Nyanda paid back the entire sum, but has failed to provide proof.

Evidence seen by the M&G suggests he paid back only a fraction. Either way, he received a major financial lift as he left government. Talk about landing on your feet.

Our story provides crucial insight into the way “commissions” paid by BAE Systems were circulated and, in our view, laundered through phony loans and questionable jobs. It cries out for action by the law enforcement agencies that have shut down the remaining local investigations and frustrated the international ones.

We could not have told it without piecing together a range of evidence, including leaks from brave, angry people who wanted to see injustice exposed. There is nothing new about this.

It is good old-fashioned investigative journalism in the public interest. But it comes against the backdrop of the proposed Protection of Information Bill and of whistle-blower website WikiLeaks’s latest coup — the gradual release of a giant data cache of American diplomatic cables.

The WikiLeaks affair raises complex questions about the difference between journalistic work and the wholesale publication of secrets.

On balance, and with some exceptions, we think the benefits of transparency — even in this radical form — outweigh the risks. The hard questions of that debate, however, should not confuse us about the iniquity of protection of information legislation that could criminalise the publication of stories like these.

National director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane is only the latest state official to try to draw a veil over the arms-deal mess. Whether it is via a server in a Swedish bunker, or patient journalism, secrets will out. The best way for governments to adapt to a world of transparency is to behave transparently. How about it, Menzi?

Doctored marks fail us all
We probably should have seen it coming. Some branches of the South ­African Democratic Teachers’ Union conducted themselves so badly during the August public sector strike that it’s hard to feel shocked by the absurdities emanating from Cosatu’s largest affiliate.

This week Sadtu in KwaZulu-Natal appealed to the education department for “a special dispensation” to grant an easier matric pass to black learners in disadvantaged schools who, the union suggested, had suffered the effects of the Fifa World Cup, strike disruptions and learning in a “foreign language”.

Two obvious questions arise — and neither has anything to do with real concern for learners. First, why is the department (which undertook to look into the matter) even considering the request?

To agree would be to set a disastrous precedent, letting striking teachers evade any responsibility for the impact of striking so close to exam time. It’s called moral hazard, never mind the hazard to the already imperilled value of a matric qualification.

Education challenges should not be dealt with in the marking hall, they ought to be dealt with way before learners sit for that final exam.

Which leads to the second question. Why is it that the very teachers who think they deserve a pay increase double that of inflation assume that poor, black kids will fail without a special dispensation? Is the teachers’ own assessment of their performance that poor? Apparently.

This call has nothing to do with the (very important) mother-tongue debate. It is being resorted to because teachers realise that they have failed the very people that Sadtu’s deepest political and ideological convictions are intended to serve: township learners.

Since the strike, the M&G has interviewed learners from well-resourced and grossly under-resourced schools. What united them was the view that failure was not an option in spite of the disruption to the teaching year.

It would be an insult to the determined class of 2010 to receive doctored results.

Angie Motshekga must dismiss the proposals out of hand.