Seriti: Mbeki denies knowing about international investigations

Former president Thabo Mbeki. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Former president Thabo Mbeki. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The purchasing of the Gripen and Hawk fighter jets during the 1999 arms deal remains sullied with allegations of bribery and rigged tender processes. It has been the subject of international and local investigations. 

On Friday, former president Thabo Mbeki said he knew nothing about the controversy.  Mbeki also denied any knowledge of an investigation by the US into the purchasing of fighter jets for South Africa during the arms deal, which resulted in the admission of guilt by an arms company to what it called “accounting” errors.  

The Hawk and Gripen aircraft were more expensive than the other options, and they cost the country $400-million more than if South Africa had purchased less-expensive jets. The joint investigation team’s (JIT’s) report into the arms deal also pointed out that the former defense minister, Joe Modise, instructed that a “visionary approach” be taken to this particular leg of the purchase: this meant that government would eventually exclude cost as a selection criteria when deciding who the winning bidders would be.  

According to the report, Cabinet was presented with options to purchase when it came to the air force’s needs: one factored in cost, and the other did not. It was Mbeki’s inter-ministerial committee (IMC) that apparently recommended that the non-costed option should be pursued, although on Friday Mbeki said he could not remember this.  

But the decision to purchase the Hawk and Gripen aircraft is one of the most controversial, not only because these aircraft were allegedly not the most cost-effective option, but because allegations of corruption emerged from this deal.  

Advocate Anna-Marie De Vos, for Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), representing Andrew Feinstein, Hennie Van Vuuren and Paul Holden, cross-examined Mbeki on Friday. De Vos said said the circumstances under which the jets were chosen by the IMC, which Mbeki chaired, was “suspicious”.  

US investigations
The IMC’s recommendation to Cabinet that the Hawk and Gripen aircraft should be purchased is in itself controversial, as two sets of minutes exist documenting the meeting where the decision was made.
One set of minutes, apparently drawn up by government’s head of acquisition at the time, Chippy Shaik, recorded that the IMC decided to recommend to cabinet that the British Hawk should be purchased above the Italian option. 

Another, allegedly drawn up by a senior defence force official, recommended that the committee should conduct further investigations into the cost of both aircraft. The official would later resign over the decision to purchase the Hawk. On Friday, Mbeki deferred to former defence minister Mosioua Lekota, who he said could comment on the selection. But De Vos pushed Mbeki for an answer on why the Hawk was chosen. Said De Vos: “Mr Mbeki, maybe you misunderstand the reason for your being here. You are here to assist the commission.”  

She said that Lekota was not a minister when the decision was taken and could therefore not explain the reasons for it. She also made reference to two investigations carried out by the US government, in 2010 and 2011, into several arms deals in which British Aerospace Systems (BAe) were involved. 

BAe was the selected provider of theHawk aircraft.  De Vos said that her clients believed that those two investigation “clearly shows that there was unauthorized commissions paid in ordered for BAe to land the Hawk and Gripen contracts.” 

‘Certainly implicit’
In their submissions to the commission, the LRH clients said this was “certainly implicit” in information given to Feinstein by a member of the US investigative team. “South Africa featured quite clearly in another plea bargain involving BAe systems  in 2011. The company settled a civil action brought by the US state department around a different set of offenses.  

“Here it admitted guilt for a fine of $70-million for violating a number of US regulations. In particular, BAe admitted to violating a number of US arms trafficking regulations. This included the unauthorizedbrokering of US  Failure to register a broker, failure to report the payment of fees or commissions …. ” De Vos said.  

Officially, BAe systems said these were accounting errors. De Vos asked Mbeki if he understood why people were questioning the decision to buy the Hawk and the Gripen. She said “commissions” should be called what they are, which is “bribes”.  Mbeki’s attorney, Advocate Marumo Moerane, said he could not understand the relevance of the question when there was no indication of “who paid whom, unlawfully”.  

Seriti asked Mbeki if he knew anything about the US investigation. “No I don’t, chairperson,” Mbeki said.  De Vos said there was a choice made by cabinet for a preferred bidder “under circumstances that raise questions”, and that Mbeki should comment on this.  Mbeki said this was “not an Mbeki question but a government question”.

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.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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