Arms deal commission postponed

Judge Willie Seriti. (Gallo)

Judge Willie Seriti. (Gallo)

The arms procurement commission, which began its public hearings in Pretoria on Monday morning, has been adjourned until August 19. Commission chair Judge Willie Seriti agreed to a request from lawyers of the defence department for the issue of the declassification of documents before the commission to be "dealt with".

Additionally, Seriti hopes President Jacob Zuma will have given the commission direction on the appointment of a third commissioner by then. This follows the resignation of commissioner Judge Francis Legodi last week.
Effectively, this means the commission cannot form a quorum because, when Zuma appointed the commission, he envisioned three commissioners hearing the evidence. Seriti and Judge Hendrick Mmolli Thekiso Musi are the two remaining commissioners.

Commission spokesperson William Baloyi said on Sunday that the commission had engaged the presidency on the legality of starting the proceedings with a two-member commission and was waiting for guidance on the matter. Legodi has yet to be replaced, but Baloyi said this had no logistical impact regarding the work of the commission. "Logistically, everything is in place. We are ready to proceed," he said.

Seriti said the issue of declassification of documentation "has always been a nightmare". Resolving that issue would prevent the commission having to ask members of the public to leave the venue "every 15 minutes" when classified information needed to be discussed, he said.

The commission was due to hear witnesses from the defence department this week. It was revealed at the commission on Monday that the department brought a court application asking for a postponement late on Sunday night. The Mail & Guardian understands that the defence department and commission met after the application was sent. It was thereafter withdrawn.

Arms deal
The arms procurement commission, also known as the Seriti commission, was established to investigate the R70-billion South African arms deal. It is confident that the public hearings will restore confidence in its ability to objectively unpack the notorious corruption claims around the arms procurement deal, despite public trust in the commission being at an all-time low.

It says that while the high-profile resignations are of great concern, they will not impact the logistics of its work this week.

Former banker Terry Crawford-Browne took the South African government to court to force the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry into the arms deal.

Zuma announced the establishment of the commission in September 2011, before the Constitutional Court could give judgment on the matter. The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, amaBhungane, launched "the arms deal cache" in 2011 – an online resource to spread knowledge about the South African arms deal in the public interest. You can follow the updates on Twitter.

The Sunday Times reported this week that one of the commission's evidence leaders, advocate Tayob Aboobaker, threatened to resign on Friday. This was two days after the Mail & Guardian revealed that Legodi had resigned from the commission. Aboobaker retracted his resignation letter and remains an evidence leader. His letter reportedly cited "nepotism, infighting and unprofessionalism" as reasons for his near-resignation.

Legodi's resignation is understood to be underpinned by Seriti's iron-fist approach to the handling of documentation and the secrecy surrounding the commission's work. Mokgale Norman Moabi's dramatic resignation in January revealed concerns of a "second agenda" at the commission. Moabi also accused Seriti of having a "total obsession" with the flow of information at the commission. Seriti's executive assistant approached the general public service bargaining council in February seeking arbitration after her resignation attempt. Her unhappiness with the commission allegedly centred on the commission's office manager, widely thought to be related to Seriti by marriage.

Researcher's resignation
Next was the resignation of researcher Kate Painting from the commission. Painting broke the silence on her reasons for resigning on Friday, telling the M&G: "Fear is a common theme at the commission and any non-compliance with the second agenda is met with hostility."

Seriti told Beeld on Friday that the resignations would not affect the integrity of the commission, saying the hearings were now public and that anyone could judge the process for themselves and examine the evidence placed before the commission. Responding to a question about whether or not his management style had influenced the resignations, Seriti told the newspaper: "Everyone has their own management style, and I have mine."

Baloyi told the M&G that the commission believed the public hearings would vindicate its reputation. "Obviously the resignations have raised eyebrows, but from where I stand the integrity of the commission is still intact. The hearings will be open to the public and the public will be given an opportunity to judge for themselves whether or not the integrity of the commission has been destroyed.

"Of course, the resignations are a source of concern, culminating in the resignation of the judge [Legodi], and one of the evidence leaders resigned [Aboobaker] who then retracted his resignation, but we are ready to execute our mandate," Baloyi said.

He added that Monday's proceedings would revolve mainly around what protocols would be followed throughout the public hearings and that no evidence would be led as such. Seriti is expected to open proceedings with a statement that will outline the task of the commission and the commission's history and terms of reference.

Evidence leaders are likely to address the commission on Monday, outlining the process to be followed. The commission's rules surrounding evidence leading and cross-examination will be read out. The public hearings will begin in earnest on Tuesday with evidence from officials from the department of defence and military veterans. The commission set aside about two months for the hearing of their evidence. The commission should have more clarity by Tuesday on when Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor) officials will give evidence. The commission's timetable indicates that the list of Armscor witnesses will be furnished "later".

Baloyi said the commission was still waiting for this list of witnesses but that the issue could be finalised late on Monday afternoon or early Tuesday morning.

"There were some people of interest [on that list] so I think the evidence leaders interacting with them [Armscor] will provide the list [to the commission]. Another issue that must still be put to bed if the commission is to proceed in peace is a legal technicality – that the proclamation issued by the presidency when the commission was announced envisioned a three-member commission.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans