/ 27 February 2014

Arms deal critics: Seriti commission must continue

Arms Deal Critics: Seriti Commission Must Continue

In spite of a perceived lack of trust in the arms deal commission, activists Hennie van Vuuren and Andrew Feinstein on Thursday said it must be allowed to complete its mandate, adding that anything less would be a "betrayal of the South African public".

Feinstein and Van Vuuren, both authors who have written extensively about the arms deal, said in spite of the commission's difficulties, it must be allowed to finish in the hopes that the truth will prevail.

The commission has been accused of perpetrating a "second agenda" and has was marred by key resignations in its early days. Criticisms of Judge Willie Seriti's handling of the process have bordered on accusing him of deliberate obfuscation.

But Van Vuuren and Feinstein called on those now wondering whether they should continue to cooperate with the commission to carry on engaging with it, and called for more media coverage of the commission in general.

"It is our view that the commission should be given the opportunity to fulfil its mandate to the people of South Africa, that it should repay the taxpayer with the full, unfettered truth of the arms deal, so that those who have unwittingly paid for it will finally know what has become of their tens of billions of rands, some of which may still be recouped," they said.

Represented by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) at the commission, along with Van Vuuren's co-author, Paul Holden, the activists have raised several issues with the way the commission operates, which they reiterated on Thursday.

"Paul Holden and I have cooperated with the commission since its inception in the hope that it would finally reveal the full truth of the notorious arms deal that will ultimately cost the South African taxpayer around R70-billion," Feinstein said.

'Substantial submission'
He said members of the commission's research team asked me to introduce them to prosecutors and others working on investigations related to the arms deal in a number of countries, "which I did, willingly".

"I met with two senior team members when they came to the UK and again helped them with contact details for people in the UK and Europe that they wished to meet.

"Paul and I made a substantial submission to the commission, including a wide range of documents identifying irregularities in the contracts on which the arms deal was based. There were so many documents that we had to send them to the commission on a disc, rather than email them.

"We were somewhat bemused when the commission's chairperson stated in a letter to Terry Crawford-Browne, that they had seen no evidence of wrongdoing. This seemed to judge the matters before all evidence had been read or heard," he said.

Rumours that the commission harboured a "second agenda" were equally concerning, Feinstein said, as this was a reminder of his experience as an ANC MP, and the ANC's "many efforts to neuter any meaningful investigation into the deal".

"We were then told that we would be needed to give evidence early last year. The date for this was changed regularly until, finally, we were informed that we would only give evidence sometime in late 2014 and that evidence leaders would not be permitted to meet with us until then.

"My concern with this decision and the corollary to have only government people give evidence in phase one of the hearings and not on the numerous corruption allegations, is that we have many criticisms of the rationale for the arms deal and the way this rationale was realised. 

"We should have had the opportunity to put these concerns to those who have appeared and we assume that some of the key people that have or still will give evidence in this first phase will be recalled in phase two when allegations of corruption are heard."

This impacts on those participating in the commission, who must have legal representation, Feinstein added.

The questioning of witnesses by the commission itself has so far been "inadequate", and this was demonstrated by the appearance of former trade and industry minister Alec Erwin, who was not cross-examined because the commission could not produce the necessary documents required.

"We were very keen to cross-examine Erwin but were stymied from doing so as the contracts on which these offsets were based remain hidden from public view. Instead of doing everything possible to have this crucial information, which in no way threatens national security or defence, disclosed, the commission claimed no one wanted to cross examine Erwin," he said.

He said the excuse that the apparently innocuous documents threatened national security was used by arms traders and governments all over the world.

"The commission, in fulfilling its very important mandate paid for by taxpayer money, should be doing everything in its power to ensure that any information that can shed light on the arms deal is brought to its attention," said Feinstein.