South Africa arms probe fires a blank

South Africa arms probe fires a blank

A long awaited probe into South Africa’s multi-billion rand 1999 arms deal has found no evidence of corruption or fraud, astonishing long-standing critics.

The highly controversial judgement by the Seriti Commission of Inquiry, launched five years ago, is a rare piece of good news for Jacob Zuma. The president, who has been closely linked to the arms deal, has been mired in repeated political and personal scandals ahead of tough municipal elections this August.

The commission’s 737-page report – dismissed as a ‘whitewash’ by critics – found “not an iota evidence” that bribes were paid to government officials to facilitate the deal with numerous European arms companies, concluding that the procurement process was “fair and rational.” The report concluded that the deal cost R46.7bn, compared to the R30bn initially envisaged.

In a scathing broadside, critics Paul Holden, Hennie Van Vuuren and Andrew Feinstein – a former ANC MP who has led opposition to the deal – dismissed the findings as “tantamount to a cover-up…[the commission] routinely failed to either admit or interrogate any evidence of wrongdoing in relation to the deal.”

The critics, who withdrew their support from the inquiry in 2014, are considering legal action to have the findings overturned.

The report offers the latest twist in a political scandal which has proved the most enduring of the post-apartheid era. The aftermath of the deal engulfed successive ANC administrations and exacerbated the political conflict between Jacob Zuma and his predecessor as president, Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma was sacked as deputy president in 2005 after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was jailed for soliciting a bribe on his behalf. Zuma escaped prosecution after charges against him were dropped just weeks before he became president in 2009.

The judgment provides political breathing space for the president weeks after the Constitutional Court ordered him to repay the inflated costs of improvements to his private estate. Zuma, who insisted that the money was spent on essential security upgrades, was forced into an embarrassing mea culpa after ignoring a previous ruling by the public protector.

Repeated allegations of corruption and cronyism have decimated Zuma’s popularity within and without the ANC and left the party struggling ahead of August municipal elections, which are expected to deliver significant opposition gains.

“President Zuma, who has been tainted politically by the recent Supreme Court ruling and his economically damaging dismissal of the country’s finance minister last year, has increasingly become an electoral liability for the governing ANC ahead of these elections…the president could face further investigations into his role in the arms deal once he eventually steps down,” says Robert Besseling, political analyst at ExxAfrica. 

David Thomas

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Written by David Thomas

David Thomas is deputy editor at African Business Magazine. He has also been published in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and South Africa's Cape Times.

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