An arms deal surrounded by explosive allegations

SOUTH Africans first learned in the late 1990s that their newly elected democratic government was shopping for a large number of sophisticated weapons in what is arguably the largest deal done in the democratic era and potentially the most corrupt.

The Strategic Defence Acquisition — known colloquially as simply the "arms deal" — was finalised in 1999, with a price tag of R30bn in 1999 money.

The steady decline in the value of the rand against the currencies of the weapons suppliers is estimated to have pushed the price to more than R80bn, with interest repayments set to be complete only in 2018.

The arms deal was designed to modernise the equipment of the South African National Defence Force and included the purchase of corvettes, submarines, light utility helicopters, lead-in fighter trainers and advanced light fighter aircraft.

It was in 1998 that the nation learned that 28 of the high-tech BAE/SAAB Gripen fighter aircraft from Sweden would form part of the shopping list at a cost of millions for each aircraft.

From the outset there were allegations of corruption around the arms deal, not the least being about President Jacob Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik and Mr Zuma himself.

Shaik began serving a 15-year sentence for corruption in 2006 but was soon released on medical parole. Mr Zuma faced some 700 charges but these were dropped in 2009, paving the way for him to become president of the country.

It was alleged that Shaik secured a payment from French arms manufacturer Thales for Mr Zuma. Thales secured the contract for the combat suite installed in the four corvettes.

After the persistent allegations of corruption, a joint team of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, the auditor-general and the public protector was appointed in 2000 to probe the arms deal but a year later it found there were no grounds to believe there was any impropriety in the deal.

At issue was that the preferred bidders in the acquisition of the corvettes were changed from the Spanish company to the German Corvette Consortium. Also, after the Italian Aermacchi trainer was selected, this was changed and instead the Hawk trainer was bought from BAE.

In the late 1990s it emerged that African National Congress (ANC) MP Tony Yengeni was accused of receiving a luxury car at a vastly discounted price as a sweetener. He was chairman of Parliament’s defence committee and was later sentenced to four years in prison for fraud.

In 2000 Parliament’s watchdog public accounts committee decided to get involved and probe the deal themselves, and this led to the leader of the ANC in the committee, Andrew Feinstein, being demoted and eventually resigning from Parliament.

Almost 10 years later Mr Zuma, in a bid to head off a Constitutional Court challenge, established a judicial commission of inquiry to probe allegations that simply refused to go away.

Things have not gone well for the weapons bought. For example, one submarine crashed into the dock at Simonstown. Another crashed into the seabed in a poorly judged dive and one of the three had its batteries burnt out when it was incorrectly connected to a shore station for recharging.

Among the fleet of corvettes, one had severe damage to one of its twin engines when water was sucked into its exhausts. The engine had to be replaced by cutting a massive hole in the side of the vessel. One of the Agusta 109 light utility helicopters was destroyed when it crashed while on antipoaching operations at Kruger National Park.

Additionally, most of the Gripen fighters, some of the Hawks trainers and many of the helicopters have been mothballed more or less permanently because there are neither the personnel or the funds to operate them.

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