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S.African arms probe could call for cancelling contracts

Published on 27/10/2011

Investigators looking into South Africa's $5 billion arms purchase could recommend cancelling contracts or taking legal action against government officials, a minister said on Thursday.

President Jacob Zuma on Monday named a top judge to lead the investigation into the 1999 deal, which has cast a long shadow over South Africa’s democracy and implicated top officials, including the president himself.

Justice Minsiter Jeff Radebe told a news conference that the investigation marks “a watershed moment in the history of democratic South Africa in the quest to rid our nation of what has become an albatross that must now cease to blemish the reputation of our government and the image of our country.

The commission of inquiry, headed by Justice Willie Seriti from the Supreme Court of Appeal, will have the power to subpoena witnesses, to compel testimony and to conduct search and seizures, Radebe said.

That includes the power to subpoena Zuma or his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who presided over the arms purchases, he said.

“They are acting independently, but … they have the power to subpoena anybody, including members of the executive,” Radebe said.

Failure to cooperate with the inquiry could be punished by up to one year in prison, he added.

The panel will not make prosecutions but only recommend if legal action should be taken against individuals. It can also recommend the cancellation of contracts, he said.

“Its recommendation will be taken very seriously. It’s a very serious issue,” Radebe said.

Zuma himself had faced charges of fraud, money laundering and racketeering in connection with the deal.

Charges against Zuma were dropped just before his election in 2009, after roiling South African politics for a decade.

When prosecutors withdrew the charges, they implied that former president Mbeki had meddled in the prosecution of the case, which led to Zuma’s dismissal as deputy president in 2005.

South Africa spent about $5 billion to modernise its military, in a deal that included the purchase of 12 trainer Hawk jets and naval patrol boats from five European groups, including BAE systems and French arms firm Thales, which was then known as Thomson-CSF.