Arms deal probe: Seriti’s wife went along for the ride

The chairperson of the arms deal commission, Judge Willie Seriti, took his wife on a fact-finding trip to Europe last year as one of "three delegates".

Seriti led the commission team, which included an advocate deployed by the justice department, Fanyana Moses Mdumbe, and a legal researcher, Kate Painting, on visits to foreign agencies that had investigated allegations of corruption involving South Africa's 1999 multibillion-rand arms deal. Seriti's wife joined them on the first trip in June.

The Mail & Guardian was leaked a letter from Pretty Luphondo, the head of the secretariat of the commission, to the department of international relations and cooperation, requesting assistance with transport and diplomatic services in the United Kingdom and Germany.

In her letter, Luphondo did not mention that Seriti's wife was accompanying him. She wrote that Seriti would be accompanied by "three delegates" on the trip to London and Munich. The itinerary sent with the letter clearly stated that the members of the delegation included Seriti, Mdumbe, who has since been promoted to head of legal research of the commission, and Painting.

The itinerary shows that Seriti and the delegation took rooms for six nights at the Holiday Inn in Mayfair in London, and that accommodation was secured for Seriti and his wife at the luxurious five-star Hotel München Palace in Munich.

Luphondo, who like Mdumbe was also deployed to the commission from the justice department where she was a human resources director, replaced the late Durban attorney Mvuseni Ngubane, who met President Jacob Zuma to discuss commission matters on the day he allegedly shot himself. The spokesperson for the commission, William Baloyi, confirmed Seriti's wife accompanied him on the trip.

"It is true that Mrs Seriti accompanied her husband and his delegation as it was both convenient and opportune for her to do so. However, her whole trip was paid for by her husband. The fact that she may have travelled with the delegation in the same vehicle does not make her a fourth delegate, nor could she have been expected to travel alone in a separate vehicle when there was enough space in the delegation's vehicle."

In addition to Seriti's decision to head the two crucial trips to Europe, he has been dogged by accusations made against him by a former senior commission investigator, Mokgale Norman Moabi, who claimed he had a secret "second agenda".

Mdumbe was the "one person" who Moabi claimed was tasked with interacting with the various evidence leaders and handling the evidence.

In his resignation letter, Moabi said the chairperson had a "total obsession" with the control of information to and from the commission. Three prominent figures with experience of commissions of inquiry confirmed it was an "unusual" decision for the chairperson to become involved in investigations.

"The commission of inquiry should try to keep the chairperson out of the investigation," said an advocate, who asked not to be named.

"It undermines his impartiality and could contaminate the process."

The advocate said it was important for the chairperson to remain impartial and allow the appointed evidence leaders to run the investigation and report back to the commission.

But the arms procurement commission has not employed full-time evidence leaders as is usual and, up until last month, the top legal minds appointed to the commission were not used to gather or piece together information.

Asked why Seriti undertook the trips, Baloyi said the commission was not a court of law but an investigative body.

"The role of the commissioners, including that of the chairperson, is not confined to hearing evidence and making findings thereon, but they are required to be proactive and can themselves participate in the actual investigations," said Baloyi.

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