Civil society groups Corruption Watch and the Right2Know Campaign have announced they will be taking the judicial commission of inquiry into the arms deal (the Seriti commission) on judicial review. They insist the public has been denied both truth and justice for corruption that continues to cost SA billions.

The review is an attempt to challenge impunity for an event that corrupted SA, but by forcing us to reconsider the evidence, it provides an important opportunity to look at the role of the European arms companies in a deal that has proven deeply damaging to our democracy.

The findings of the commission chaired by Judge Willie Seriti, which cleared almost all parties of wrongdoing, have found little public support. One of the cheerleaders has been former president Thabo Mbeki, who regards critics of the arms deal as driven by a stereotypical view that African governments are inevitably, or even uniquely, corrupt.

Some people are undoubtedly trapped in a mind-set that pathologises African governments. The discourse around corruption is painfully blind to the role of corporations, banks and powerful governments in the global North, as the arms deal has shown. This is about corrupt local elites and global corporations willing to pay huge bribes. Consider the recent LuxLeaks and PanamaLeaks disclosures, detailing a range of illicit activities that contribute to trillions of dollars flowing out of poorer countries. The response has often been to defend the status quo by pointing to public sector corruption.

We do not talk enough about corporate collusion to raise prices, nor about the powerful companies that shift profits offshore and cry poverty when it comes to raising wages. We do not pay enough attention to the private sector’s role in corrupting public officials.

Mbeki knows this, and his recent reports on illicit financial flows should be commended for prompting us to be more critical of the role of multinational corporations, banks, central banks and western governments in the theft of wealth and resources that need to be mobilised to improve the lives of people in Africa. However, what Mbeki misses is that effective investigation of corruption in the arms deal is a crucial part of these efforts to shed light on what corruption really looks like.

A proper investigation would expose those who enriched themselves through the deal. It would also scrutinise the central source of corruption in the deal: the European companies that paid billions of rand to their agents in SA to influence the deal. Some of these companies have admitted in foreign courts or internal documents to their role in paying bribes in SA and worldwide. They profited handsomely in return.

An effective investigation would also consider the role of private banks and export credit agencies in financing arms companies and arms purchases, and providing channels and accounts into which bribes are paid. The lack of due diligence done in this regard is one of the central conditions that facilitates the movement of illicit money globally.

The arms trade is one of the most corrupt industries. It exemplifies that power and secrecy are the real factors that allow for corruption, and that it is a global phenomenon.

The industry has contributed greatly to the suffering of South Africans pre-and post-1994. Global arms firms and banks violated the arms embargo to prop up the apartheid state at the height of domestic repression and foreign wars. They were a central source of corruption in the National Party government, with nearly R500bn (in current terms) being spent through the special defence account, with almost no effective auditing or oversight.

The Seriti commission has failed to expose the nature of this trade, but we cannot allow that to be the last word. This judicial review is an opportunity to set the record straight. First we need truth, thereafter we must pursue justice.

This article was first published in the Business Day on 26 August 2016. See online here.

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