Crib notes: The arms deal commission

A news week that begins with an Oscar Pistorius court appearance, a Marikana funding court case and the first round of arms deal commission hearings is journalistic bliss. But it is bound to test the attention span of even the most committed newshound and reader.

With the wealth of information due to come out at the arms deal commission of inquiry, headed by Judge Willie Seriti, we've put together some crib notes as a guide to the arms deal commission's business this week, as well as the months to come.

I've been reading about the arms deal for years. Why should I pay attention today?
The long-awaited Seriti commission of inquiry into the arms deal will call its first witness on Tuesday. It's a milestone in the history of the series of investigations into the arms deal, and the first time in more than 10 years that South Africans will be privy to the airing of the evidence.

But the questioning will be a moment slightly soured by the problems that have beset the commission so far: high-profile resignations, murmerings of a "second agenda", and accusations of ill-preparedness. Nevertheless, the investigations matter and all eyes will be on Judge Willie Seriti to ensure the evidence leading is transparent and probing.

The first witness to be called is an Admiral AG Green from the South African Navy. He will be followed, in the days to come, by more naval officers and air force officials.

Green will talk about the South African National Defence Force's mandate, functions, policies around acquisitions, and its strategic objectives.

He will also outline, broadly, the thinking behind the arms deal.

The first phase of the commission's processes is supposed to interrogate the rationale for the R70-billion arms deal, signed in 1999, and the utilisation of the equipment.

Navy and air force officers are well-equipped to speak about some of these issues, particularly the utilisation element: one of the biggest criticisms of the arms deal has been that South Africa could not afford the equipment, much less afford to operate it, and that the jets, boats and helicopters were gathering dust in warehouses.

Some of the officials will speak in broader terms than what many arms deal critics would like, for instance, Admiral Schoultz will give evidence on deficiencies in the navy dating back to 1975. But he will also talk about how the navy now uses the frigates and submarines, which is more to the point.

But defence industry jargon is boring, isn't it?
You're slipping already. This part of the inquiry, including evidence from Armscor officials, will roll on until the end of September. The witnesses will be led through the "where, what, how and why" of the arms deal – critics have called it more of a scene-setter than a Spanish inquisition.

Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of all of these witnesses will be an important indicator of how useful the arms deal has been to the country in the 14 years since the procurement took place.

Some of the "so what?" of the arms deal might be covered here: corruption claims aside, what we are doing with these very expensive fighter jets and boat parts anyway? Hopefully, this part of the inquiry will shed some light on the matter.

So when should we pay full attention to the commission?
All the time, preferably. But you'll especially want to tune into the Seriti commission around September 30. That's when former deputy minister of defence and intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, and former defence minister and current Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota will give evidence.

Until about October 4, the two men should give evidence about the rationale behind the arms deal when it was signed.

Lekota initially appeared aggravated when Patricia De Lille presented her infamous dossier of arms deal corruption claims to Parliament in 1999. But his attitude has changed since his exit from the ANC after the party's Polokwane conference, and he is now one of government's most vocal critics, both on the campaign podium and in Parliament.

Kasrils has also become critical of government since leaving Cabinet. In his new book, Armed and Dangerous, he described what he considered to be huge errors made on the part of the ANC in the early nineties.

In an excerpt published in the Guardian in June this year, Kasrils said: "The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out."

Unhindered by their former loyalty to the ANC-led government, Lekota and Kasrils's evidence is likely to be interesting.

Then, from early November this year until late January 2014, while the commission continues to probe the economic impact of the arms deal, a trifecta of government ministers – Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel and Alec Erwin – will give evidence.

All three were central to the decision to sign off on the arms deal, as deputy president, finance minister and trade and industry minister respectively at the time. Erwin will likely be asked to shed light on the controversial arms deal offsets – part of the arms deal package that should have delivered job creation and investment outcomes to South Africa to "offset" the enormous cost of the arms deal – most of which critics say never materialised.

OK, but when does it start to get really interesting? What about all the corruption claims?
In phase two, which should kick off in February 2014. (Pothole alert: February 14 will also mark the anniversary of the Reeva Steenkamp's killing and Oscar Pistorius's trial gets underway in March. Lookout for another news-saturated couple of months.)

February is when numerous arms deal campaigners and authors will give evidence. Most of these men and women have written extensive affidavits to the commission on why they think the arms deal was corrupt – or why it "changed everything", more specifically.

One of these witnesses, Terry Crawford-Browne, took the government to court over several years in an attempt to force it to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate the deal.

Others, such as former Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) members Andrew Feinstein, Reinette Taljaard and Gavin Woods, resigned from Parliament and their respective political parties, in part because of the way Scopa handled its leg of the investigation.

Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren, two more witnesses who will be called during this time, wrote the definitive The Devil in the Detail: How the Arms Deal Changed Everything.

Feinstein, author of After the Party and The Shadow World, now travels the world campaigning against the international arms trade.

These witnesses will do more than just suggest that the South African arms deal was corrupt: they will present evidence to prove their allegations. Their evidence will cut to the heart of why the arms deal remains the quintessential South African corruption story.

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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. 

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