The Strategic Defence Procurement Package, better known to South Africans as The Arms Deal, first appeared on the country’s radar screen in 1998, after a procurement package for just under R30-billion was being signed.

By September 1999 Cabinet had approved a set of contracts to acquire combat aircraft, naval vessels, including submarines, and other military equipment.

However, a series of allegations began to emerge alleging corrupt activity in regard to many of the contracts, including kickbacks, tender irregularities and over-pricing.

Questions about the deals have been raised in Parliament on several occasions, and probes have been held – with little result.

Investigations by the Scorpions and the Hawks (special units assigned to the National Prosecuting Authority) have yet to yield comprehensive results, apart from a handful of prosecutions including that of financial advisor Shabir Schaik.

In October 2011 President Jacob Zuma ordered a new probe into The Arms Deal. The new commission of enquiry will have two years in which to finally put the arms deal scandal to rest.

The origins of the deal

The Arms Deal stemmed from the government’s desire to re-equip the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) following the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

Included in the deal were the procurement of 24 Hawk trainer aircraft, 28 Gripen fighter aircraft, 30 utility helicopters, three submarines and four frigates from international arms manufacturers such as BAe and SAAB.

However, the deal soon raised eyebrows after certain bidders were seemingly favoured.

Whistle-blower Young

The alarm was first raised by Richard Young, an unsuccessful bidder, in 1998 when the procurement processes were at an advanced stage. Young’s company was bidding for a sub-contract for a control system on the navy’s new corvettes, which went to African Defence Systems (ADS). Shaik, whose brother Shamin headed the defence department’s armaments procurement committee, was a director in ADS. Young also raised objections to processes relating to French company Thomson-CSF, now called Thint. Thint held shares in ADS.

Besides Young, various civil organisations raised concerns about the role of powerful, politically-connected individuals who held shares and directorships in companies that benefitted from the arms deal.

It is alleged that more than R1-billion in commissions was paid by the main beneficiaries to the deal, BAe, SAAB, Agusta, Thomson-CSF and the German Frigate Consortium (GFC).

Some of the companies have subsequently held internal inquiries into these allegations, while South African authorities also held investigations into the companies’ behaviour.

In 2008 Britain’s Serious Fraud Office confirmed to the Hawks that BAe had paid more than £115-million (about R1,5-billion) on “commission” payments.

Smaller “benefits” in the form of discounts on luxury vehicles went to as many as 33 key players in South Africa’s defence family.

By September 1999, MP Patricia de Lille asked Parliament to open a public investigation. A dossier was handed over to the Special Investigations Unit. The gist of the dossier was that senior officials received kickbacks in the procurement process.

The Auditor-General and Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) started separate probes into the deal in 2000.

In addition, the Scorpions launched their investigation and uncovered evidence of irregularities. As a result of this probe, in 2005 the Durban High Court found Schaik guilty of soliciting a bribe from Thomson-CSF, among other findings.

The new probe, a judicial commission of inquiry chaired by Judge Willie Seriti, will look into all the allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety and irregularity. Seriti will be aided by North Gauteng High Court judge Malesela Legodi and Judge President of the Free State High Court, Hendrick Mmoli Thekiso Musi.

The commission has two years to carry out its duties, filing interim reports every six months.