Did Parliament really sign off on the arms deal?
That Parliament approved of the arms deal is a line that has been repeated over and over by government witnesses testifying at the Seriti commission of inquiry into the deal. But it is an assertion that is disputed, and that dispute might be formally put to the commission on Thursday in Pretoria.
At the heart of this dispute will be the testimony of Raenette Taljaard, a former parliamentarian for the Democratic Alliance (DA), who believes that Parliament was systematically and purposefully undermined to ensure that government would be exonerated by any probe into the arms deal.
What remains is an institution that, as recently as 2000, was an enthusiastic interrogator of government spending, but is now a mere rubber stamp for Cabinet decisions, according to the former MP.
Taljaard, who now teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town, will testify before the commission when it resumes its public hearings on Thursday, after a short adjournment last week. Her 2012 book, Up in Arms: Pursuing Accountability for the Arms Deal in Parliament, reads like an anatomy of how to scupper an investigation.
Stunting of Parliament’s oversight role
Taljaard’s experience of the arms deal, viewed from the opposition benches in Parliament and retold in her book, was that it dealt a blow to its institutions. “South Africa has been damaged by the arms deal,” Taljaard wrote.
“Its institutions have barely survived the ferocity of the consequent assault on the values and ideals of our new democracy.”
The second Parliament, whose speaker was Frene Ginwala, should have busied itself with “carving out a clear oversight role for [itself]”. Instead, Taljaard wrote that Ginwala occupied herself with finding reasons why Parliament’s role in investigating allegations of corruption in the arms deal should be limited. “The stunting of Parliament’s oversight role, which continues to plague the institution to this day, is all part of this legacy.”
In August 2000, auditor general Shauket Fakie released a report that found many irregularities in the deal and recommended an investigation. The public protector’s investigation was about to begin. In October 2000, Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) released its now infamous 14th report.
After conducting public hearings into the arms deal and interviewing key decision-makers, Scopa recommended a multiagency probe that would deploy the forensic and legal muscle of the state’s various arms to uncover the truth about the allegations of bribery and corruption.
Soon after presenting its 14th report to Parliament, Scopa’s members in the ANC, who included Andrew Feinstein (now an outspoken critic of the deal), were reportedly reprimanded by the ANC’s governance committee for questioning “the integrity of government” in the Scopa meetings.
Publicly, the government gave its assurances that it would co-operate with the multiagency probe, but former president Thabo Mbeki controversially refused to allowed Judge Willem Heath’s Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to join the probe, despite a request from Heath to investigate. The SIU has the power to cancel flawed government contracts.
Frivolous and vexatious – or Kafkaesque?
By 2001, a “concerted assault” by Cabinet was under way, intended to undermine the work of Scopa and the auditor general, according to Taljaard; a series of events that she termed “Kafkaesque”. The Joint Investigation Team, the multiagency investigation, released its report that year. But it had been edited to exclude any reference to wrongdoing by government or Cabinet ministers.
In her book, Taljaard writes that she attempted to get hold of the unedited draft report by requesting a copy from the auditor general. “I wanted to see for myself the extent of the alterations that had been made. In January 2002 he responded to my request by stating that it was ‘manifestly frivolous and vexatious’.”
Richard Young, an arms deal bidder who had lost, later went to court to obtain the draft report. It was materially different to the final version presented to Parliament, which attributed no blame to government.
In 1997, two years before the deal was signed, Pan Africanist Congress MP Patricia De Lille had tabled her infamous dossier of allegations in Parliament, requesting a fully fledged investigation. De Lille gave evidence at the Seriti commission on July 24.
Taljaard’s resignations unrelated to the ANC
Taljaard’s book makes it clear that she resigned from the DA first, and from Parliament second, citing an irretrievable breakdown in her relationship with then party leader Tony Leon.
She wrote of her resignation: “Allow me to clarify again: my reasons for departing relate primarily to the DA, key personalities within it and their respective roles, and not to the ANC.”
But her critique of the arms deal and its damage to oversight mechanisms in Parliament and government, as well as allegations that Cabinet unduly exerted pressure on these independent institutions to protect ministers from accountability, are sure to emerge as strong themes in her evidence on Thursday.