/ 6 August 2013

The arms deal commission’s crumbling credibility

The Arms Deal Commission's Crumbling Credibility

It may seem like a minor bugbear for the arms procurement commission, but the uncertainty around the declassification of sensitive documents that saw the commission adjourn for two weeks on Monday could see large sections of what is supposed to be a public and transparent process take place behind closed doors.

Any attempt to hide the commission's interrogation of the R70-billion arms deal from public scrutiny will undoubtedly hurt its already shaky credibility.

The commission is investigating the 1999 arms deal, estimated by researchers to have cost the country R70-billion, that has seen large swathes of South African politicians, middlemen and international arms traders tainted by corruption and bribery allegations.

On Monday at the commission's proceedings in Pretoria, Michael Kuper SC, counsel for the department of defence, told the Seriti commission that no decision was taken between the government departments and the evidence team on how the issue of declassification would be settled.

The commission has already been presented with volumes upon volumes of documentary evidence. Much of the information contained in the arms deals dossiers would be related to defence and could have been classified.

But the public hearings are supposed to be transparent, and much of the information before the commission is already public.

Kuper said a system had to be introduced which would allow the evidence leaders to produce documents to the commission "without any objections".

Seriti noted on Monday that the declassification of arms deal documents "will always be a nightmare".

Asked why the issue wasn't finalised before the start of the public hearings, spokesperson for the commission William Baloyi would only say that the declassification issue was an "ongoing" one between the department and the commission but would not give further details.

Seriti, in granting the postponement, said: "We believe that if at all the legal representatives of the defence department require a period of two weeks within which they will deal with the question of declassification of documents, this might be a very helpful suggestion."

But international campaigner against the global arms trade, author, and erstwhile ANC MP Andrew Feinstein said it was "extraordinary" that the issue of declassification was not resolved beforehand.

Feinstein, who resigned from Parliament in 2001 in protest of the South African government's handling of the arms deal, told the Mail & Guardian on Monday: "The arms procurement commission should have resolved the declassification of documents before it began its public hearings. It is extraordinary that such an obviously crucial matter wasn't resolved before the commission began its public hearings. Sadly, it reflects the chaos that has characterised the commission since its inception."

The commission has been dogged by a series of high-profile resignations that brought forth allegations of a "second agenda" against Seriti. Most recently, commissioner Judge Francis Legodi resigned from the commission last week.

This means the commission does not have a quorum, as the presidential proclamation that birthed it requires three commissioners to oversee the proceedings.

According to Feinstein, the integrity of the commission is now critically compromised.

"It is important to bear in mind that the reason it is so difficult to reveal corruption in arms deals is because most of the documents and material relating to such deals around the world is classified. This includes legitimate national security issues, but also, unfortunately, always includes evidence of malfeasance and sometimes criminality.

"If the department of defence and other branches of government were now to demand that the evidence that has been given to the commission – including by people like myself who are highly critical of the deal and its accompanying corruption – is to be classified and, thus, held in camera and not accessible to the public, then the commission will become redundant and [will allow] yet another whitewash of the corruption in the arms deal.

"And South Africa's taxpayers would have seen more money wasted on an exercise to conceal rather than reveal the truth about the R70-billion that we will have spent on the arms deal by the end of 2018," said Feinstein.

In a letter written in January this year, in response to a letter from former researcher at the commission Mokgale Norman Moabi, which urged Seriti to submit to a lie-detector test, Seriti said only exceptional cases would be heard in camera.

"I wish to appeal to the media and the public at large to give the commission space to focus on preparations for the upcoming public hearings, to start on March 2013. Save for exceptional cases, these hearings will be open to the public and the public will have an appropriate opportunity to observe and judge for themselves whether the commission is true to its mandate or not," Seriti said at the time.

This brings into question whether or not the witnesses who would have testified this week – defence department officials – would qualify as "exceptional" cases, given the timing of the postponement.

The M&G understands that, late on Sunday night, the defence department wanted to apply to the North Gauteng High Court for an interdict that would force the commission to postpone.

But Minister of Defence Noziviwe Mapisa-Nqakula did not sign off on the application, the M&G was told, and it was resolved that the postponement would be dealt with at the commission's proceedings on Monday.

A spokesperson for the department told the M&G he was "not really in the loop" with regards to Sunday or Monday's proceedings and could not comment on the postponement applications.

Meanwhile, Baloyi could also not give any further clarity on the postponement as he said he could not speak on behalf of the department.

He would only say that "[the issue of declassification] has been an ongoing process between us and the department of defence".

Asked if this meant that the commission still had to apply for documents to be declassified in the next two weeks or if the relevant documents to be presented at the commission were already declassified, Baloyi would also not comment further.

Kuper could not be reached for further comment. – additional reporting by Tabelo Timse