SA must not make arms deal mistakes again | by Judith February | September 26, 2014

The deal and associated corruption tested our democratic institutions as politicians sought to evade responsibility for it and its effects, writes Judith February

WHETHER the government entered into the Strategic Defence Procurement Package (the arms deal) would depend on its “appetite for risk”, Treasury official Roland White said in 1999. Despite several warnings, the deal went ahead, with financial and governance consequences for which SA is still paying heavily today.

The deal and associated corruption tested our democratic institutions as politicians sought to evade responsibility for it and its effects. The way in which the deal was dealt with was a “litmus test” for our democracy and the strength of its institutions, as the Institute for Democracy in Africa said at the time. The stories are legion and the arms deal remains the subject of an inquiry, even though no one really believes the Seriti commission will bring us any closer to the truth.

In the light of the experience, one might think successive governments have learnt lessons from the past.

In his state of the nation address this year, President Jacob Zuma underlined the energy crisis facing SA. As the National Development Plan (NDP) does, he called for a “radical transformation of the energy sector”. An energy security Cabinet subcommittee would be responsible for the oversight, co-ordination and direction of activities for the energy sector. Zuma chairs the subcommittee and is thus leading the decision-making process.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) is the primary policy guide and describes a future energy mix that includes nuclear energy. It is unclear whether the latest IRP (it is renewed every two years) has been approved by the Cabinet and what its status is. But, aside from the IRP, the NDP has a clear commitment to an “energy mix” that would include renewable energy sources. The government’s dogged pursuit of nuclear is therefore confusing.

Recently, Zuma travelled to Russia on a trip that was shrouded in secrecy. His spokesman, Mac Maharaj, said he would be “discussing nuclear energy”.

This week, what seems like a framework agreement was signed in Vienna between SA and Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, Rosatom. Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said the deal would create thousands of jobs and also “place a considerable order” with local industrial enterprises worth at least $10bn. Apparently, according to energy officials, there will be further contracts and subcontracts signed as a result of various procurement processes.

Even as the government goes ahead with the nuclear option, there has been no substantive debate in Parliament on the energy mix required for SA or the cost or safety of the nuclear option, despite calls by Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Lance Greyling for such a debate and oversight. The DA has now given Joemat-Pettersson 10 days to furnish Parliament with the signed agreement.

In terms of section 217 of the constitution, all procurement must be transparent. It is well known that nuclear is a more expensive option, prone to cost over-runs eventually recouped from citizens.

Whether this transparency will be forthcoming remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that the public, via Parliament or any other forum, has no meaningful information about the deal or, crucially, who will finance it in the future. There are various pricing models that might be able to be invoked, yet information about these must surely be placed in the public domain. The procurement processes will also need to be transparent, with criteria which are open for scrutiny.

One of the lessons of the arms deal was that the procurement criteria were selective, were changed halfway through and, in some cases, deviated from. SA cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. Long after Zuma and Joemat-Pettersson have departed from the political scene, SA’s citizens will be paying for this deal.

Already we have more questions than answers. The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution has written to Joemat-Pettersson requesting a copy of the agreement and expressed concern about a lack of transparency.

South Africans have the right to know the content of agreements signed in our name that will bind us into the future. Let us hope the government will not sell us down the river and that we have learnt the arms deal’s lessons once and for all. Civil society and Parliament will need to remain vigilant to ensure citizens are receiving value for money and that the job creation that ought to arise from the deal does not simply mean jobs and contracts for those connected to powerful decision makers.

via Business Day

• February is with the Institute for Security Studies.

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