Seriti probe drama subverts its integrity

Tayob Aboobaker, who handed in then later withdrew his resignation from the probe, presides over﷯ its first session.(Madelene Cronjé)

Tayob Aboobaker, who handed in then later withdrew his resignation from the probe, presides over﷯ its first session.(Madelene Cronjé)

A series of key but controversial staff appointments at the arms deal commission of inquiry under chairperson Judge Willie Seriti has sounded the alarm among those who fear it might have been set up as a whitewash.

Whether the staff appointed to the Arms Procurement Commission have the political will to get to the truth of the corruption scandal surrounding the government’s 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement Package will be put to the test at its upcoming public hearings set to resume on Monday.

Attorney Mokgale Norman Moabi, who quit his job as a senior investigator at the commission after claiming Seriti was operating a shadowy “second agenda”, remains concerned that there is not a determined effort by the commission to get to the truth.

“If documents that are key to establish the true position with regard to the terms of reference of the commission are classified, then South Africans should know that they are compromised,” he said this week. “The truth they need to know will be part of the classified data.”

The commission’s public hearings kicked off on August 5 and lasted only two hours before being postponed for two weeks, after lawyers for the defence department said they had been unable to declassify certain documents related to the arms deal.

Moabi said he was not sure how the commission intended to get to the bottom of matters when there was a wealth of information it had not yet viewed that could have an impact on the hearings.

The commission is only now outsourcing the process of sorting through more than 3.4-million pages of arms-deal evidence collected by the disbanded Scorpions unit, which had not yet been accessed by the commission’s staff. Action was taken after City Press revealed last Sunday that a wealth of evidence was being ignored by the commission and was still sitting in shipping containers at the Hawks’ Pretoria headquarters.

Commission spokesperson William Baloyi said it was aware of the documents in the containers and had been fully briefed by some of the officers who were involved in the investigations.
“Doubt was expressed whether the bulk of them would be of any assistance to the commission’s investigations,” he said.

Baloyi said that, although the documents did not relate to the upcoming hearings, the commission had decided to scan them and service providers were now being engaged to do the work.

Moabi finds this explanation implausible. “Since the commission was established, the containers had been there and nobody had cared all along to check the documentation that was there, and it related to the arms deal,” said Moabi. “It is surprising that the commission deems it fit only now to look at the information in the containers. To me, it indicates that, from the beginning, there was never an intention to get all the information related to the arms deal.”

The staff hired by the commission would be essential to its success in getting to the truth of arms-deal corruption.

With the hearings resuming on August 19 in Pretoria, the Mail & Guardian looks at some of the commission’s controversial axings and appointments:

  • Advocates Vas Soni and Sthembiso Mdladla were handpicked by Seriti, and publicly named by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe in 2011 as the key evidence leaders at the commission. Yet both were unceremoniously dumped without any official notification before the commission had even got started.
  • Many in the legal field now say Soni and Mdladla had a lucky escape.
  • The M&G is informed that Seriti brought in his choice of attorneys and researchers to the commission, which was given a R40-million budget. These appointments included his right-hand man and supposed enforcer, advocate Fanyana Mdumbe, who is said by those who have worked with him to have strict control over the flow of information, investigations and evidence in the probe.
  • Another of Seriti’s appointees, attorney Kate Painting, resigned from her job as principal legal researcher in March. Two weeks ago, she broke her silence on why she suddenly quit her post and said a disturbing “second agenda” had emerged at the commission.
  • “I went on fact-finding trips overseas and initially believed we would fulfil our mandate, but another agenda soon emerged, as did an obsessive control of information, family relationships, and incompetent administration,” Painting said in a statement released to the M&G. The commission did not respond to her statement.• Some staff were brought into the commission by its former commissioner Judge Francis Legodi and commissioner Judge Thekiso Musi, but these appointments were apparently sidelined. “The secrecy of information made others [who were] not brought in by Seriti redundant,” said a legal source privy to events.
  • The appointment of Pretty Luphondo as secretary to the commission broke with tradition as she does not have any legal qualifications. Legal practitioners told the M&G that the commission secretary is the custodian of the evidence, and Luphondo would be expected to subpoena evidence and handle all administration. Legal sources queried why the job had not been given to an attorney, who would then be held accountable to the Law Society.
  • Luphondo was seconded from the justice department to replace the late Mvuseni Ngubane, the Durban attorney who allegedly committed suicide last year. The M&G established that, shortly before he died, Ngubane told his best friend, attorney Mxolisi Nxasana, that the justice department had come on board and taken over the process. There have been claims that Luphondo’s family members have been brought in as a cleaner and an executive assistant to Seriti, but the commission has declined to comment on these accusations.
  • Commission office manager Samkelo Hlatshwayo is one of the most controversial appointments, as she apparently wields considerable power and is also alleged to be related to the chairperson, Seriti, by marriage. Claims abound that she is his wife’s niece and that she only recently moved out of his family home after the M&G published allegations about their possible family ties.
  • Hlatshwayo has declined to speak to the press and the commission has declined to confirm or deny the family relationship.
  • Yet it recently emerged that former commissioner Judge Francis Legodi had tried to intervene to assist a young clerk, Themi Zulu, who he believed was being treated unfairly by Hlatshwayo. Legodi resigned two weeks ago, on the eve of the start of the public hearings, without making public the reasons for his departure.
  • Zulu had fallen into disfavour over a newspaper order she had tried to cancel and Hlatshwayo allegedly then told her to buy newspapers for Seriti and the commission out of her own pocket. Seriti then issued a new policy directive in June that was sent to all staff. The directive was apparently aimed at Legodi and began: “As a rule, commissioners should avoid getting involved in disputes relating to the commission’s staff (save for their own secretaries) and should advise staff members approaching them with work-related complaints to follow the proper reporting lines.”
  • Questions sent to the commission about the incident by the M&G went unanswered.
  • Former police divisional commissioner of legal services Lindiwe Mtimkulu was hired as a legal investigator at the commission. Mtimkulu was suspended and quit her police job during her disciplinary hearing in 2010. Her suspension was linked to a 400-page report into police legal services. It is claimed the report alleged Mtimkulu presided over a department that was grossly mismanaged. But Mtimkulu told the M&G she had challenged the validity of the report and the charges against her were dropped.

“We see no point in commenting on Ms Mtimkulu’s background since you have already spoken to her about it,” said Baloyi last year.

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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