Attending a Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) hearing is a bit like watching paint dry; until it bursts into flames. Ably chaired by Themba Godi, the committee goes about its work with a careful eye on the parliamentary Friday clock that does not have any working hours on it after lunch time. Last Friday morning it was the turn of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to explain its accounts. A glossy illustrated annual report is on the table in the committee room in the new wing of Parliament and the members of the committee, without the assistance of their retrenched/reassigned researchers, have clearly been poring over it in order to ask appropriate questions of the phalanx of public servants, led by the Director General (DG) of the Department of Justice and her predecessor (who is now National Director of Public Prosecutions, Menzi Simelane), who are available to provide the necessary answers. Repeated qualified audits do not appear to have any positive effect, nor do they disqualify those responsible from appearing yet again to explain the situation depicted in the public accounts.
It quickly becomes apparent that all is not well with the accounts under scrutiny. There is a so called “irregular committee” in existence within the NPA tasked with investigating the irregular expenditure incurred in the year under review. Nobody on it is present. As there is a list totalling close on R100 million in irregular expenditure in the year under review, it must have its work cut out for it. In respect of the 11 line items of irregular expenditure in that year (2008/09) and under the heading “disciplinary steps taken/criminal proceedings”, it appears that the irregular committee is still to “review and make recommendations” in respect of 8 out of the 11 items which make up the various irregularities and that no actual disciplinary steps or criminal proceedings beyond a final written warning to three individuals who proved incapable of correctly adding single digit scores when evaluating tenders. The disciplinarian involved could not find any evidence that the miscalculations were deliberate and it is just too bad that the incorrect entities were awarded tenders as a consequence of the miscalculations made.
A lot of time is taken up during the hearing asking unanswered questions about the items of irregular expenditure; numerous promises of follow up memoranda are made but not a single question gets asked in relation to the historical reconciliation of irregular expenditure which was R 526,627,000 in 2008/09 up from R 412,077,000 in the previous year. Perhaps the parliamentarians are too embarrassed on behalf of the NPA to go into historical amounts five times the size of those for the current year, which they so closely and fruitlessly interrogate; perhaps they heard all the non-answers last year and the year before.
And then, quite suddenly, the drying paint explodes. Mark Steele, DA member of SCOPA, reminds the public servants present that on the last occasion that they were interrogated by SCOPA there was an indication that investigations into possible corruption in the arms deals were “proceeding”. Steele wants a report on progress. The Director General (DG) defers to the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions (NDPP). He answers that all files (and there are rooms full) have been or are being handed to the Hawks and that the NPA has no investigation pending into any irregularities in the arms deals. Immediately the surviving scribes of the fourth estate (those who have not left out of boredom) spring into action. Notes are taken, Simelane is quizzed the minute the session ends and a flurry of activity ensues. Simelane goes into “no comment” mode. He won’t say whether he has washed his hands of the arms deals investigations. This is strange; it is he, and no other, who determines prosecution policy in SA. True enough, accounting responsibility is that of the DG and the Minister of Justice must concur in any prosecution policy that Simelane determines with his provincial counterparts. But “no comment” won’t really do. Not when three books have already been written on the topic of corruption in the arms deals. Not when SCOPA is still seized of the matter. Not when every opposition party in parliament, Cosatu, civil society organizations, faith based groups, former President de Klerk and Archbishop Tutu have been calling and calling again for a commission of enquiry into the arms deals. There are scores of billions at stake. Most of the very expensive aircraft in the deal with British Aerospace have not been delivered yet and the prospect of cancelling all deals tainted by fraud or corruption is tantalizing to all who are most properly concerned that there are better ways of spending hard earned taxpayers’ money than wasting it on dodgy deals aimed at acquiring arms the country does not need, to fight enemies it does not have in wars that can not be imagined, even by the most paranoid of observers. “No comment” indeed.
Steele responds to the news that the NPA has washed its hands of the arms deals by passing the buck to the Hawks with a swift request to the Chair that General Anwar Dramat be invited to come to SCOPA and tell members how exactly he has fielded the buck passed his way. This is better than doing nothing, but is unlikely to reveal any real progress toward getting to the bottom of the matter. Simelane has already derailed the arms deals related proceedings against Fana Hlongwane by intervening after the High Court had already been persuaded by the NPA team led by Adv Billy Downer SC that there is a case for Hlongwane to answer. The chapter and verse on record as the product of a ten year investigation is most persuasive. A long list of names, bank accounts, amounts transferred and the conduits used with supporting documentation aplenty all came to nought after Simelane intervened to help Hlongwane, a former adviser to the late Joe Modise, SA’s first post liberation Minister of Defence, out of his spot of bother created by Downer’s efforts.
The truth is most likely to be that the Hawks have neither the will nor the skill to do anything about the arms deals given their lack of manpower, limited sapiential authority and the political control under which they find themselves as a unit of the SAPS. The Hawks do not even bat an eyelid at the convincing paper trail leading to Chippy Shaik from the bribe paying German arms dealers. Chippy has returned to SA from Australia, where he fled before the disbandment of the Scorpions, confident in the cessation of investigation of his highly questionable role in the arms deals. Investigators answerable to politicians are not likely to involve themselves in any politically charged high level corruption investigations. They have only to look at the unfortunate precedent created by the dissolution of the Scorpions unit to know that their careers are endangered if they do. The sad truth is that the Hawks busy themselves with hijackers, drug dealers, abalone smugglers and low level tender riggers without ever troubling the high flyers who are politically well connected. Dramat’s solemn undertaking, given on national television when he was appointed to lead the Hawks, that he would act without fear or favour, has had no discernable effect other than to so spark Zapiro’s imagination that the Hawks immediately became portrayed as harmless teletubbies. They only fly on command, and there is no command to fly into the arms deals.
IDASA has called the arms deals “the litmus test” of SA’s commitment to democracy and good governance. As a nation we continue to fail this test, and will continue to do so unless and until an independent judicial inquiry into the arms deals is appointed by the President. If he won’t do so voluntarily, he will simply have to be compelled to do so through litigating his failure to do so.
Paul Hoffman SC
16 May 2010.