Thabo Mbeki doesn’t remember. And even if he did, he merely “presided” over collective decision-making processes that were constitutional and rational.
This was the sum total of Mbeki’s evidence to the arms procurement commission this week, in what was a clear attempt to demonstrate to the commission that he could not possibly be held personally accountable for the arms deal.
The deal, now estimated at R70-billion, was signed in 1999, soon after Mbeki became president of the country. Previously, as Nelson Mandela’s deputy, he was appointed as the chairperson of the interministerial committee tasked with overseeing the acquisition of arms.
Mbeki is the last witness of phase one of the commission’s public hearings. Phase two will deal with fraud and corruption allegations. He was adamant that there was collective decision-making during the arms deal negotiations.
In an apparent show of solidarity, Mbeki was flanked by his former ministers Alec Erwin, Trevor Manuel and Mosiuoa Lekota. In his four-page statement, Mbeki also said he “endorsed” the evidence of the former ministers, all of whom came to the commission to defend the arms deal.
Briefed in some detail
Evidence before the commission showed that, as chairperson of the committee, Mbeki was briefed in some detail about the arms deal purchases.
Advocate Paul Hoffman, representing arms deal critic Terry Crawford-Browne, began his cross-examination of Mbeki on Thursday morning.
He put it to Mbeki that the Gripen fighter jets were the lowest ranked option; essentially, they were not the best and most cost-effective option. “I don’t remember any presentation made to the interministerial committee,” Mbeki said.
One of the most controversial decisions was the purchase of the BAE Hawk fighter jets, which were also not the most viable option at the time.
Mbeki did not recall a meeting in August 1998, at which the decision to recommend the Hawk purchases to Cabinet was taken – a meeting at which Mbeki was present. Former deputy defence minister Ronnie Kasrils had testified about the meeting. Mbeki said the Hawk was “better but more expensive”.
It was during the acquisition of the jets that the bulk of the allegations of bribery and corruption emerged – allegations that could be aired during phase two of the hearings.
“We decided to go with the Hawk and then we would see how to manage the cost implications later,” Mbeki said, adding that he was sure officials from the department of defence could shed light on why this was so.
Hoffman told the commission that, in March 1997, the South African National Defence Force had received bids from 23 different suppliers for the provision of fighter trainer jets, and made a shortlist of four. “Neither the Hawks or the Gripen made that shortlist. Do you remember this?” he asked. “No, chairperson, I don’t,” Mbeki replied.
He also could not recall announcing that the tendering bids would be reopened and that the deal would cost R12-billion, in 1997.
Former minister of defence Joe Modise had adopted a “visionary approach” with regard to the purchase to exclude cost as a factor in the selection process, said Hoffman.
Mbeki said the matter did not come to his committee’s attention, and he knew nothing else about it. “Because, Mr Mbeki, you appreciate that it would be illegal, unconstitutional and invalid to leave out cost as a factor,” Hoffman said.
“Yes, yes, I understand that. We, as the interministerial committee, did not take any decision without considering cost,” Mbeki replied.
Hoffman had to be called to order by the commission’s chair, Judge Willie Seriti, after he insisted that Mbeki answer questions on whether this made Modise’s “visionary approach” illegal.
Mbeki insisted that cost implications were considered.