By Lee-Ann Alfreds

Around 40 local and international organisations are calling for the Arms Procurement Commission to be scrapped as concerns over its credibility ratchet up.

Corruption Watch, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Right2Know Campaign, Section27, Equal Education and the Treatment Action Campaign are among the organisations which have "lost faith" in the commission's ability to get to the bottom of South Africa's controversial 1999 arms deal. The commission, chaired by Judge Willie Seriti, was established in 2011 to investigate allegations of fraud and corruption in the R71-billion procurement of submarines, frigates and fighter jets to replenish the South African National Defence Force. 

In a statement issued last week, the organisations say the commission – which has cost at least R63-million thus far – had "lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the public”. They called for it to be dissolved and for a full and transparent criminal investigation to be launched in its stead. They also want all the implicated wrongdoers – who are alleged to include senior members of the ANC ruling party – to be prosecuted.

The organisations' call follows the subpoenaing of critics Andrew Feinstein, Hennie van Vuuren and Paul Holden in September, just weeks after they had announced that they would be withdrawing from the commission because they did not feel they would be treated fairly. The three – who have all written widely-acclaimed books on the arms deal – indicated that because they would not be able to rely on documents they had not authored, had not been given documents they had requested, and the commission had refused to admit crucial documents which provide evidence of fraud and corruption, they would not be able to testify or be treated fairly on the stand.

The civil society organisations are calling for what they term "real arms deal accountability".

"The 1999 arms deal represents up to R70-billion that should have been spent on housing, education, health and South Africa’s other pressing social needs. The arms deal corrupted our politics, weakened state institutions, and undermined our democracy. And despite mounting evidence of corruption, there has never been a full and transparent investigation. The politicians, public servants, middlemen, and large multinational arms companies involved have never been made to explain themselves to the South African people.

"The Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the arms deal represented a crucial opportunity to uncover the truth, but it has become highly unlikely that the commission will fulfil its mandate," the organisations said in their joint statement.

They said their conclusions were based on the fact that the commission had:

  • refused to make huge amounts of evidence public;
  • declared some of the most crucial documents pointing to corruption “inadmissible”;
  • made a ruling indicating witnesses may only speak to documents that they have authored; and
  • failed to call witnesses from the arms companies, from the list of known or suspected middlemen, or from any of the foreign law enforcement agencies that have investigated parts of the arms deal.

The organisations also pointed out that the commission had failed to "gain the public's trust" through the highly-publicised resignations of at least six senior staff, four of whom had resigned in protest at the commission's conduct.

"For these reasons, we have lost faith in the Seriti Commission’s capacity to reveal the truth behind the arms deal. It has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the public," they concluded.

“Maliciously vilifying” the commission?

However, in a statement, the commission noted “with concern” the calls for it to be disbanded. But It said it was not as concerned about the calls for it to be scrapped, as it was the “misinformation peddled and the false allegations made to justify the call”.

Pointing a finger at Feinstein, Van Vuuren and Holden, the commission said “there could be no disguising who the real instigators of the campaign are”.

“In this regard, it is the commission’s firm view that the people who have been carrying placards and badmouthing the commission know very little, if any at all, about what is happening at the commission and are mere foot soldiers,” the statement read.

The commission pointed out that the trio’s decision not to testify relates to the “deadlock over their demand that the commission should provide them with all the documents in its possession, to enable them to conduct their own investigations into the very same matters that this commission has been appointed to investigate”.

The commission also warned it was a criminal offence to “disparage or insult the commission or its members”.

“The commission has thus far been extremely reluctant to invoke the powers it has in terms of the regulations to initiate criminal proceedings and other legal measures at its disposal against people who maliciously vilify it or its chairperson but it may be forced to do so if the disparaging and insults persist. We trust that this shall not become necessary and that people can continue to freely express their views about the commission and its work and, where necessary, criticise it and thus keep us on our toes,” it said.

The organisations who have endorsed the call are: Corruption Watch;
 Lawyers for Human Rights;
 Right2Know Campaign;
 Section27;
 Public Service Accountability Monitor;
 South African History Archive; Cooperative and Policy Alternative Center;
 Open Democracy Advice Centre;
 South Durban Community Environmental Alliance;
 Ndifuna Ukwazi; Equal Education; Afesis-corplan; 
Democracy from Below;
 Embrace Dignity; 
350.org Africa-Arab;
 Social Justice Coalition; Gun Free SA;
 Treatment Action Campaign;
 Alternative Information Development Centre; 
Institute for Security Studies; 
Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution;
 Claremont Main Road Mosque Board of Governors;
 Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement; 
Khulumani Support Group;
 Socio-Economic Rights Institute; 
Zambezi; FoX (Freedom of Expression);
 Reparations for Africa
; Centre for Applied Legal Studies;
 Institute for Justice and Reconciliation; 
Isiseko Literacy Project;
 Earthlife Africa; Campaign Against Arms Trade (UK); Diakonia Sweden; 
EG Justice; International Peace Bureau;
 NOVACT International Institute for Nonviolent Action;
 Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society; The Corner House, UK;
 World Peace Foundation.

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Around 40 local and international organisations – Corruption Watch among them – are calling for the Arms Procurement Commission to be scrapped as concerns over its credibility ratchet up.
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