Weapons Probe Clears South African Politicians, Officials

  • Judicial commission finds weapons purchase was justified
  • Anti-arms campaigner calls commission's findings `whitewash'

A South African panel that spent four years investigating allegations of corruption linked to about 46.7 billion rand’s ($3.3 billion) worth of weapons purchased in the late 1990s found no evidence of wrongdoing by politicians or government officials.

“The commission found the evidence presented before it does not suggest that undue or improper influence played any role in the selection of the preferred bidders which ultimately entered into contracts with the government,” President Jacob Zuma said Thursday in a nationwide broadcast. The panel found the purchase of the weapons to be justified, said they were being used properly and recommended no further action, he said.

The purchase of jets, warships, helicopters and submarines from companies including ThyssenKrupp AG and BAE Systems Plc has been dogged by graft allegations since it was agreed to in 1999, with accusations of wrongdoing by officials including former President Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma established the panel headed by Judge Willie Seriti after anti-arms campaigner Terry Crawford-Browne sued the government in 2011 to revive an investigation, arguing that the state failed to meet a constitutional obligation to fight corruption. Mbeki, ex-Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and former Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, who were among 54 witnesses who testified at the hearings, denied knowledge of wrongdoing.

Officials Quit

The panel’s credibility was questioned after two of the three judges originally appointed by Zuma and several officials quit.

The commission failed to consider millions of pages of evidence collected in previous investigations or properly interrogate witnesses, Crawford-Browne said.

“We expected it would be a whitewash,” he said by phone from Cape Town. “I’m amazed it was so blatant. The whole thing was a complete farce. I am considering going back to the Constitutional Court.”

The government spent the money over a period of 14 years, excluding financing costs, according to the National Treasury. The cost may have reached as much as 70 billion rand after taking into account debt payments and the currency’s depreciation, according to the Cape Town-based Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa.

Luxury Car

While there were several previous official probes of corruption in the weapons contract, only two people have been convicted in South Africa on related charges.

In 2003, Tony Yengeni, a former lawmaker for the ruling African National Congress, was found guilty of defrauding parliament by failing to disclose a discount on a luxury car from one of the companies bidding for the arms contract. In 2005, Zuma’s then-financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of trying to solicit a bribe for the politician.

A police investigative unit known as the Hawks halted its probe in 2011, saying it was unlikely to secure further convictions.

U.S. Investigations

BAE, Europe’s biggest defense company, agreed in February 2011 to pay almost $450 million in fines to resolve bribery and fraud investigations by U.S. prosecutors and the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office relating to deals in six countries, including South Africa. In June 2008, German state public prosecutors dropped a two-year bribery investigation of ThyssenKrupp, Germany’s largest steelmaker and was part of the group that supplied four frigates to the South African navy.

“The commission states that the widespread allegations of bribery, corruption and fraud in the arms procurement process, especially in relation to the selection of the preferred bidders and costs have found no support or corroboration in the evidence,” Zuma said. “Not a single iota of evidence was placed before it showing that any of the money received by any of the consultants was paid to any officials involved in the strategic defense procurement package.”

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