At a meeting in August 1998, government apparently decided to buy expensive Hawk trainer jets instead of cheaper options available, as part of the arms deal packages, according to minutes prepared by Chippy Shaik.
Government has always maintained the Hawk planes were the best option available, so it was prepared to pay the extra amount. Now another set of minutes from that meeting has emerged at the commission, which casts doubt on government’s version.
Ronnie Kasrils, deputy to former defence minister Joe Modise in 1998, conceded on Tuesday to the arms deal commission that the Hawk, the option presented to government by British Aerospace Systems (BAE), was more expensive than its competitor, an Italian bid. He denied that the aircraft was also a less technically viable option for South Africa to purchase at the time, despite evidence to the contrary.
The decision to purchase the Hawk trainer jets has been one of the most controversial, and sparked the earnest interest of South African and British criminal investigations into the arms deal.
On Tuesday, Kasrils maintained that the decision was above board. At the heart of Kasrils evidence is a “special ministerial briefing” held in Durban on August 31 1998, when the Hawk was apparently chosen as the preferred option. The meeting was called to brief then-president Thabo Mbeki on the progress made on the arms deal.
Also present at the meeting were Modise, former minister of trade and industry Alec Erwin, former minister of public enterprises Stella Sigcau and various other government officials.
Former defence procurement chief Chippy Shaik was also present and minuted the meeting to reflect that the Hawk should be recommended to Cabinet. But another set of minutes was produced by evidence leader, advocate Simmy Lebala, on Tuesday. This set was drawn up by Henderich de Waal Esterhuyse, a former general manager of aeronautics and maritime at Armscor. Esterhuyse reportedly drew up the minutes after reading Shaik’s version, which he did not agree with.
In Esterhuyse’s version, it was decided at the meeting that both options being considered – the Italian and British offerings – should be investigated further, with a view to determining which bid would be most beneficial to South Africa’s offset demands, in stark contrast to Shaik’s version. Kasrils said he could not vouch for this other set of minutes, which he said he had never seen until it was presented to him by the commission. He said it was an “anomaly” for Esterhuyse to draw up the minutes, and as such, he would have remembered it had the minutes been shown to him at the time.
The theory that the decision to purchase the Hawk was influenced by nefarious agendas was given some credence by testimony from former defence secretary Pierre Steyn, who resigned from the defence force in 1998.
Steyn previously testified that the purchase of the Hawk was “predicated on the fraudulent manipulation of information”. He said that Shaik had motivated the decision via faked minutes of the August 1998 meeting.
‘Account for costs’
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian in 2007, Steyn said he resigned over the decision to purchase the Hawks because they were much more expensive than the Italian bidder. “In the end I resigned because, as secretary for defence, I was going to have to account for the costs to Parliament, which I couldn’t do,” Steyn told the M&G.
But on Tuesday, Kasrils disputed this. He said Steyn had raised no allegations of “manipulation” regarding the purchasing of the aircraft at the time. He said he had met with Steyn “personally” and Steyn had told him that his reasons for resigning were family-related, and not related to the arms deal.
Kasrils told the commission the Hawk was “sustainable, durable, desirable”, even after being confronted with evidence to the contrary.
Lawyers for Human Rights, represented by advocate Anna-Marie De Vos, put it to Kasrils that a report from the South African National Defence Force’s own publication described the Hawk as a machine that could “only be used as a support function in a low-threat environment”.
Kasrils had earlier testified the Hawk was chosen because it could train pilots and be used in combat.
A series of explosive allegations, leaked to the M&G in 2008, reveal the extent to which the Hawk contract was allegedly manipulated. This was not put to Kasrils on Tuesday, probably because phase one of the commission does not deal with fraud and corruption allegations.
These allegations, contained in documents belonging to Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, allegedly revealed a series of payments made to South African officials, including Modise’s advisor Fana Hlongwane via offshore front companies. The information was used by the now-disbanded Scorpions to obtain permission to conduct raids on several suspects’ homes and businesses, before their investigation came to a halt.
BAE has denied wrongdoing, although it later paid fines in Britain and the United States after admitting to “false accounting and misleading statements in relation to allegations of corruption”, related to other arms sales.