The Editorial: Arms-deal players put on terms

What’s wrong with President Jacob Zuma? He keeps doing the right thing! Last week had topsy-turvy Tuesday, when he said he would release the long-buried Donen report. This week started with topsy-turvy Monday, when he fired tainted ministers and suspended the police chief.

But, as if a trick a week was not enough, he gave us a topsy-turvy Thursday too, complete with proper terms of reference for the arms-deal inquiry! Indeed, the commission’s terms of reference appear comprehensive, addressing the array of bugbears that have dogged the deal.

These range from the original motivation for the purchase of sophisticated weaponry by a young democracy whose greatest threats are dispossession and unemployment, to the billion-plus rands in commissions and alleged bribes that influenced procurement decisions, to the wild promises of industrial investment and job creation.

Of course, lest we be perceived as letting our guard down too much, some important riders need to be added: One, the commission will only be as good as the people who preside over and run it.

Appeal Judge Willie Seriti might not be as ideal a choice as retired Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo would have been. And one or two members of the commission’s staff will have to prove they fit the justice minister’s assurance that the commission “will work independently of everyone, including the executive”.

Two, as we report today, the question remains whether sitting judges Seriti and his co-commissioners Willem van der Merwe and Francis Legodi can, under the Constitution, chair a commission at all.

And three, as Zuma would be only too aware, any inquiry can be rendered ineffective by subsequent changes to its terms of reference. The Hefer Commission investigating allegations that former prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka was an apartheid spy was effectively turned on the complainants, Zuma associates Mac Maharaj and Moe Shaik, through mid-course changes to the terms by then-president Thabo Mbeki.

Reason to celebrate
Nevertheless, we have reason to celebrate with indefatigable campaigner Terry Crawford-Browne, whose Constitutional Court challenge forced Zuma to accede to the appointment of a commission in the first place. Crawford-Browne may not have all he wanted, but a sturdy framework is in place.

Particularly welcome is the focus on the question of restitution. Questions to be answered by the commission include whether there is a basis to pursue persons who “improperly influenced any of the contracts awarded” for losses, and whether any contract “is tainted by any fraud or corruption — such as to justify its cancellation”.

What a far cry from when Mbeki prevented then-judge Willem Heath from joining the earlier Joint Investigating Team inquiry for the apparent reason that Heath’s Special Investigating Unit had the power to cancel contracts prejudicial to the state.

Our story today on how cynically arms contractor Ferrostaal had regarded the industrial-offsets programme — the reason it had landed the contract in the first place — serves again to highlight the breathtaking arrogance of the arms contractors who laughed all the way to the bank, leaving behind a country with a tainted soul.

Go get them.

See the second half of this weeks editorial:
A democratic competition

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