Arms deal inquiry hits the skids

Sources suspect meddling as advocates Vas Soni and Sthembiso Mdladla have been removed from the probe. (David Harrison, M&G)

Sources suspect meddling as advocates Vas Soni and Sthembiso Mdladla have been removed from the probe. (David Harrison, M&G)

A campaign to discredit and remove two respected advocates who were publicly named eight months ago by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe as the key evidence leaders in the Arms Procurement Commission’s inquiry into the arms deal has led to fresh concerns about political meddling in its processes.

Advocates Vas Soni and Sthembiso “Sticks” Mdladla were handpicked by the commission’s chairperson, Judge Willie Seriti, yet they have both been unceremoniously dumped without receiving any official notification.

Asked why the commission had not notified the two advocates that they were no longer needed, commission spokesperson William Baloyi said Soni and Mdladla had been “identified and earmarked but not appointed”.

The Mail & Guardian has established that a campaign to unseat them began months ago. Both Soni and Mdladla allegedly received calls from people attempting to discredit the other for the job, and similar calls were made to the commission.

When the arms deal probe was set up by President Jacob Zuma in September last year, the announcement followed a court bid by retired banker Terry Crawford-Brown to force the government to appoint an independent inquiry into allegations of corruption relating to its multibillion-rand arms purchases. Crawford-Brown subsequently withdrew his action, and the comprehensive terms of reference for the long-awaited judicial probe were widely welcomed.

Part-time duties
Although even Zuma’s name has been dragged into the scandal, Radebe gave assurances that the commission would work independently of everyone, “including the executive”.

Yet the M&G can reveal that the late Durban attorney Mvuseni Ngubane told his best friend, attorney Mxolisi Nxasana, who is the sitting president of the KwaZulu-Natal Law Society, that the justice department was trying to make his critical role as secretary on the commission a part-time one, which would not have allowed him to do justice to the massive job.

“Mvuseni phoned me and talked about his role as secretary of the arms deal commission,” said Nxasana. “He said that since the justice department came on board and took over the process, they wanted to dictate his remuneration. The last time I spoke to him, he said the department wanted to put him on a part-time basis. He wasn’t happy about it, but he said he would make it work.”

The justice department said it was not aware that Mvuseni had been asked to perform part-time duties for the commission, which is expected to run for two years.

Ngubane met Zuma to discuss commission matters on the day the lawyer is alleged to have shot himself in his Mercedes-Benz parked in his garage, and had been due to meet Seriti two days later.

However, with Ngubane’s tragic death and the unexpected departure of Soni and Mdladla, the legal team is now severely depleted. Yet the remaining advocate named by Radebe as being on the commission team, Mahlape Sello, a senior member of the Johannesburg Bar Council,  has not yet been given a contract, according to newly appointed commission spokesperson Baloyi.

Sello assisted the state in its case against former prosecutions boss Vusi Pikoli at the Ginwala commission of inquiry. “I did check with human resources here and her name had been confirmed,” said Baloyi. “However, in terms of her contract, the process has still not been concluded. That person is not yet doing any job for the commission.”

Despite the upheavals, Baloyi said the public should still submit evidence to the commission by the closing date of July 30. Seriti is finalising finding other people to play the same role as the advocates, a process that is now at an advanced stage, he said. 

However, Soni is believed to have been alerted to the fact he might be replaced when he was recently sent an email by the professional committee of the Johannesburg Bar Council. The committee informed him it had received a request from somebody who wanted to find out whether he had been excluded from the commission.

Advocate Matthew Chaskalson confirmed that he had been “sounded out” about taking over as evidence leader, but said that because he had previously taken a brief from an arms deal-linked company, Thint, the matter had not been taken further.
The legal figures invited on to the commission have complained that nothing has happened to get the commission rolling since October.

Mdladla discovered he was no longer required for the prestigious brief last week, after a journalist asked him why he had been “axed” from the commission. Soni heard from colleagues up to six weeks ago that a replacement was being sought for him as chief evidence leader. He had been widely considered a good choice as he led the evidence during the Jali commission of inquiry into allegations of prison corruption.

“I didn’t withdraw from this commission; I just heard informally from colleagues that I had been replaced,” said Soni, who admitted being disappointed by the turn of events. “I accept that this decision has been taken, although no one notified me.”

Soni said in November last year he was asked by Seriti about a perceived conflict issue that had been brought to his attention. It had never occurred to him, said Soni, that it could amount to a disqualification that he had assisted in preparing a replying affidavit on behalf of Thint, the local subsidiary of French arms company Thales, in March 2006. Thint had been seeking to set aside the search-and-seizure warrants obtained by the Scorpions.

“I was not privy to any privileged documents and merely assisted in the preparing of the replying affidavit for Thint,” Soni said. “It had not dealt with the arms deal, but with the validity of the search warrants and the seizures.” Soni said Seriti had said he would go away and think about it, but he had heard nothing further and believed he had the job.

Mdladla, meanwhile, is “picking up the pieces” of his professional life, as he had cleared his diary and suffered financial strain after being asked to be on standby for the commission.

Absolute nonsense
He described claims that he had been paid a disproportionate fee and had failed to write up a final report when he chaired a commission investigating policing in KwaZulu-Natal in 2005 as “absolute nonsense”.

Mdladla said Ngubane asked him to prepare a letter for Seriti when the allegations were brought to the commission’s attention in October last year. Ngubane had told him that the judge was satisfied and the matter was settled. The fact that he had continued to do government work over the years was proof these claims were spurious, said Mdladla.

Allegations that the justice department had taken control of the commission process were denied. “The department does not have the legal competence and capacity to run the commission,” the Justice Departments said in response to M&G questions. “It is a role limited to providing an enabling environment for the commission to perform its mandate and task.“Baloyi said the commission was an independent body but was working closely with the justice department, especially in relation to employment and conditions of service. Its budget still resides with the department.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country. Read more from Glynnis Underhill

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