Jarred Cinman
Jarred Cinman

Arms deal: Is there something more important than the truth?

The controversial arms deal has come back to life again over the past few weeks like those trick birthday candles your parents repeatedly used to humiliate you as a kid. Thanks to the latest Sunday Times exposé, and the refrain in this week’s M&G, it is again top-of-mind, crawling around the Talk Radio 702 phone-in lines and the subject of rampant debate on Thought Leader and everywhere else.

Co-incidentally, I have been reading After the Party by Andrew Feinstein, a book ostensibly about the arms deal, but also about Feinstein’s time as one of the ANC’s anti-corruption investigators. And like the media, his analysis of the deal is damning of the ruling party. In it he implicates, well, just about everyone: Mbeki, Zuma, Trevor Manuel, Alec Erwin, Tony Yengeni and just about any other ANC bigwig you can think to name.

It’s an exhausting and, at times, annoying book: part memoir, part economics lecture and part savage assault on the Mbeki government. What it is also, one must give Feinstein, is probably a fair and accurate account of his experiences in the ANC during the seven or eight years he was in Parliament.

The conclusion drawn from of all this writing and reporting is that there have been, fairly undeniably, many dodgy dealings around the arms deal. It’s difficult to unravel, particularly when there are numerous role players trying to obfuscate the truth — and particularly when dealing with an international industry of such ill-repute as weapons. The Nicolas Cage film Lord of War springs to mind.

The facts, I think, go something like this:

  • The South African government, fresh from winning the 1994 elections and peopled with ex-freedom fighters who suddenly find themselves in control of a powerful economy, is targeted by international arms manufacturers, much as they have targeted many other regimes around the world.
  • Naive, flushed with new power and a desire to see South Africa take up its rightful place on the world stage, the government opens its heart and mind to two dangerous groups of people: first, the offshore arms companies; second, local businessmen who instantly see a chance to profit from their close connections to those in power. One or more of the Shaik brothers would be the most obvious example here.
  • Late into Nelson Mandela’s time in office, the broad brush strokes of a big arms procurement are put in place, and the details are finalised under the new Mbeki regime in 1999. There is some amount of public outcry as the figures are revealed — more than R30-billion — but nothing like what’s to come.
  • In the aftermath of the signing, the ANC’s own anti-corruption people start to smell a rat. Or some rats. Among them is Feinstein. And these voices lead those in power to start paying closer attention. Jacob Zuma, Feinstein says, is an early supporter of these investigations. Then he (and everyone else) suddenly seems to turn against them, and starts scuppering all attempts to find the truth.
  • Over the course of the next few years, and all the way until today, the arms deal has been portrayed as largely kosher by the ANC. It has admitted some amount of corruption — for example the prosecution of Tony Yengeni — but has otherwise seemed to expend most of its available energy in trying to make it all go away. This with the exception of the prosecution of Zuma, a complicated undertaking that is embroiled in the struggle for control of the ANC.

Why the change of heart? Why would a party initially ready to do anything to avoid corruption suddenly endorse it?

Feinstein, and I think popular opinion, argues two things. First, the passing of power from Mandela to Mbeki, from an international symbol of humanity and justice to an autocratic, centrist and aloof intellectual. Second, the inherent corrupt nature of the ANC government. The latter is a popular refrain for the many racists still embedded in this country, many of whose inane rubbish can be read on Thought Leader comments threads.

I have a different take on things. I too think there are two forces at work. One, the fallout of so large a mistake that no one is exempt from criticism; and two, the importance of other things over truth.

International arms companies are the scum and the scourge of the planet. Profiteering from war, selling sub-standard weapons to countries who can’t afford them and don’t need them, deliberately manipulating governments — there really is nothing nice to be said about them. As Feinstein notes toward the end of his book, this is not limited to banana republics in Africa or South America. Tony Blair’s relationship with one of the prime contractors in the South African arms deal was profoundly questionable, to say nothing of the Bush administration, which pushed through an $80-billion arms deal after 9/11.

The South African government was taken for a ride — and not just some of the government, just about all of it. The good, the bad and the ugly all were manipulated by the kinds of snake-oil salesmen against whom they were far too green to defend themselves.

And, to deepen the misfortune, it appears that many of the players did so under the misapprehension that this would benefit South Africa. Promises were made to invest into the country billions of rands, and South Africa would become a military powerhouse on a continent Mbeki initially very much wanted to dominate.

In the midst of this were numerous people who stood to benefit financially from the contracts, both directly and via contributions to the party. I think their motivations varied as well. Some were no doubt simply crooks. But many, I believe, were caught in a grey area of inexperience and sudden access to resources after many years living from hand to mouth. It may sound overly generous to grant these people the benefit of the doubt, but I think that is the greater crime: to condemn people who fought with all their strength, jeopardised their lives and those of their families and effectively sacrificed everything for this country, on the basis of a single mistake.

Which brings me to point two: loyalty over truth. Is truth always the high-water mark of proper action? Those like Feinstein — and, I wager, many “Western intellectuals” in the rationalist tradition — hold truth (and its close ally, justice) above everything else. In particular in relation to the government, they demand that if someone did wrong they should face the consequences. The British political scene, with ministers and MPs constantly hunted down by tabloids, is perhaps the greatest epitome of this idea. The truth, at all costs.

But does the truth in this sense always serve the best interests of a country? Does justice always mean the crushing of those who have committed misdeeds?

There are two interesting parallel examples in Southern Africa: the TRC and the current Zimbabwe negotiations.

The TRC effectively forgave wrongdoers from the apartheid era for their crimes. Yes, it insisted on truth in exchange for that forgiveness; however, there was no way to measure the fullness of that truth. In addition, many apartheid-era criminals never came forward — PW Botha among them. And yet we all, as a nation, chose to enslave truth to something bigger, in that case, reconciliation and a peaceful transition.

The current Zimbabwe negotiations have taken many people by surprise. What looked to be a situation on the brink of civil war appears, at least tentatively, to be moving toward resolution. This despite the price of having to allow a monstrous dictator to walk free, even to remain in power. Truth and justice have been sacrificed in the interests of a greater good.

When it comes to the arms deal — and perhaps some other cases of corruption in our young democracy — have we stopped to consider that there may actually be a greater good? From the ANC’s point of view, loyalty to comrades is, I believe, a more important ethic than simply laying bare the truth. That may stick in your throat, but I have to try to imagine what it would be like to fight for 30 years alongside someone, sacrificing my freedom and safety, and then be put in a position where I am asked to turn that person in.

But if you can’t deal with that, how about the greater good just being the stability of the government and the fact that, if all these corruption claims are true, everyone is implicated? An entire collapse of the ANC leadership structures and the branding of every government minister as a corrupt thief may seem just rewards if they’ve done wrong. On the other hand, what effect would that have on the country? What price for being “right” and exposing the “truth”?

This kind of argument rattles the moral chains of “Western” morality, the stuff of American movies and Hague tribunals. And I’m not saying Africa must be allowed a different moral standard. But I do think we have to allow that things are more complicated than the milk-and-cookies story inscribed in popular culture. And that sometimes mistakes need to be forgiven and forgotten, even huge ones, in the interests of more important things.

To me, the ANC did the only thing it could: close ranks and try to save itself and the country in the only way that was left. Far from ideal, but the only remaining option.

Wanting the truth is a hard thing to let go of. The DA, as an example, is a party for whom truth is all that seems to matter, no matter what the consequences. I wonder. That may be right, but is it best?

  • Coen

    I find your pragmatism naive. I concur that arm deals are an issue worldwide, but to always return to the “cry-racist” excuses does not change the fact that people that fought for the truth and had the moral upper hand degenerated into the so-called “Western” morality. And yes, I understand that you said that the Western culture is all about the truth and justice, just after you used the example of Bush and Blair’s morals being questionable. I wish this nation will strive to be different to the norm and not make the mistakes the evil west does and has done.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Musa

    Sometimes these ideals, such as truth and press freedom need careful scrutiny.

    The thought struck me when the press busted Deputy President Mlambo Ngcuka when she ‘secretly’ met her Zimababwean counterpart, Joyce Mujuru here in Westcliff.

    The meeting was then no longer secret and Mugabe and his goons then knew about it. He then made life difficult for Joyce, let alone her efforts to oust him from within Zani-PF.

    At what cost to the people of Zimbabawe was that that ‘scoop’? It probably delayed their freedom by a few years. Efforts to oust Mugabe from within were forever trashed.

    Sometimes, we need to be prudent in the way were exercise these freedoms.Human lives are more valuable then a ‘scoop’ of sorts and our zeal for the ‘truth’.

  • Clay

    I doubt this “Western” morality issue and i think the truth is what is told by the peson who controls the media simple as that. I think the case is to look at the issues as South African and ask yoursel what is bigger. The same thing happens the world over and the western culture is not about the truth, there are so many examples out there to prove that. By the way most of these people offering bribes are from Western countries.

  • Peter

    If ONLY even a few of those involved would tell the truth your approach might be easier to accept. But almost all lying repeatedly make it VERY difficult.

  • Hope H

    Going easy of Zuma is OK with me. The courts and moralists must have there say but I hope that if it comes down to it they can give him a reprieve, or make a national apology suffice. If he swears to serve and applies himself he will have a high capability – given his popularity – and also the uniquely powerful legacy that is South Africa. I don’t think people should get too hung up on the arms deal.

  • Michael Trapido

    A great piece with plenty of food for thought.

  • Paddy II

    You’ve written a very interesting article, Jarred, and voiced an opinion that I’m sure will cause lots of trouble! Sincere kudos to you.

    While I agree that ‘truth’ should sometimes play second fiddle to more concrete ideas like ‘stability’ and ‘peace’, I think it should happen as rarely as possible. Even when it is necessary it is still an evil, just the lesser of two or more.

    As for the first of your two proposed alternatives to the ‘truth’ of the Arms Deal, I think ANC loyalists who forgive their colleagues’ corrupt arms trading on the basis of past allegiances should take a long walk off a short pier.

    As for the second, I think ‘government stability’ is, if not an oxymoron, at least pretty nebulous. As a general principle: the faster and more efficiently corrupt people, criminals and arms dealers are exposed and removed from powerful public office, the better. There will always be other administrators to replace them, and it’s far from unthinkable that they’d do a better job. (They might even come from the DeeYay.)

  • Craig

    @Jarred, what you and Traps seem to miss in this whole issue is the fact that if individuals in the government personally benefited from the arms deal, the taxpayers have essentially been ripped off by those charged to serve them.

    How can this have been a ‘mistake’ caused by inexperience? The only inexperience seems to be that they didn’t hide it well enough.

    Anyway, back to my point – if they overspent / spent unneccessarily in order to make personal gain, I think the average Joe needs to know this when next they hear promises that the government is doing everything it can to uplift them from poverty etc etc.

    South Africa needs to get tough on politicians if the country is to see some real results from government – to let them walk free from this will stave off the threat of violence at the price of lower standards of governance.

  • Mike A

    The moralists and absolutists among us should indeed ponder on how we moved into the post 1994 era. How much of the past was forgiven?

    But, there is a distinction here. For the most part, those responsible for the crimes of the past no longer remained in positions of authority, and there was little proposect of those crimes continuing.

    We are in a different situation now. The proposal seems to be that JZ and others can say sorry, and then continue. What actual protection or guarantee would there be against the same things happening again? For instance, how about our new power stations?

  • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

    We can not afford the truth to be swept under the carpet. The truth is that would be giving in to the blackmail of Vavi, Malema and others.

    Saying our only options are blanket amnesty or a degeneration into anarchy is the same old slippery slope logical fallacy. Zuma and anyone else implicated in corruption must be mature about it and prove their claimed innocence. At the very least, Zuma supporters must hear the truth so they can make up their minds soberly about his fitness for office.

    What about the rule of law? What is the use of our beautiful constitution if it doesn’t apply to the fat cats at the top? We might as well have remained with our corrupt apartheid government in that case, because the only difference between then and now would be the colour of the skins in the same oligarchy.

  • http://letpeoplespeak.amagama.com Lyndall Beddy

    Good grief – are you Though Leaders only reading the book now?

    AND you have left out the main point – the ANC needed money to support its many hangers on which Christian Action had dumped, AND money for the 1999 election. They were broke and now have over a billion in the bank – go figure!

    AND there is no such thing as “western morality” only “morality”.

    AND Zimbabwe is hardly any example!

    AND P W Botha was senile by then – ample proof on record if you cared to find it. AND why should the principle of not “fighting for 30 years and then turn on the person” apply to the ANC and not to Botha – especially since he was the boss and the others were footsoldiers.

    AND TRC amnesty was for a civil war, where, however misguided, those involved were fighting for political principles NOT for money!

    There is only ONE morality!

  • Ali

    I have been to a press conference by the SA Council of Churches, in ’99, where several church leaders and NGO leaders and researchers into the world of weapons deals warned against the excesses of this deal and warned that these promises of reverse investment almost always came to nothing elsewhere. This was reported widely in the media. I’ve heard several political researchers in the same time being very vocal against the deal and against the naive believe that these companies will invest billions in our country. In fact, I cannot remember anybody in favour of it except for the ANC. How could the ANC not have heard this?

    It certainly is a momentous mistake and a grossly irresponsible one. I find it very hard to accept even the remote possibility of a pardon. What is the difference between a naive mistake and corruption?

    No ways dude.

  • jaycee

    Maybe there are no absolutes. But when corruption or any other crime is judged in terms of a moral viewpoint, then one must avoid generalizing, because such a line of reasoning ends up in the approval that two wrong make one right. What has the TRC or apartheid wrongs to do with the arms deal? And we are not talking about Bush or Blair, we are talking about our own top brass in the government who, CONTRARY TO A REPORT SUGGESTING THAT THE ARMS DEAL WOULD NOT BE IN NATIONAL ECONOMIC INTEREST, went ahead with it. And they ostensibly went ahead with it not so much for the benefit of the country but to line their own pockets!
    I am afraid because self-enrichment was involved and it was public money that their should be a proper investigation to get to the truth. To say the ones guilty were inexperienced holds no water. The government that time had appointed so many consultants that their is no excuse for them not to have gathered sufficient information to make the right decision. In fact, my belief is that those who are trying to prevent the truth from coming out, are doing so to cover themselves from the fact that they fleeced the country from resources which they could have used to uplift the poorer people.

  • BenzoL

    If “the truth” as a value statement will be reduced to an “option” if the consequences are too ugly to contemplate, where are we as a society?
    The courts and other call for “the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me…..” becomes farcical for anybody believing or not.
    Interesting take and really rocking the fundamentals of any society. Could be a first for SA to introduce the “non truth” as an option in legal proceedings.

  • tradere

    This article, together with most of the comments, is the most brutally frank apology for moral relativism I’ve read in a long time. Extorting a bribe for allowing an arms deal becomes an innocent act of ignorance. Investigating political gangsterism and corruption becomes a threat to national security. The small guy/taxpayer hands over protection money in order not to have his little shop trashed by Big Al.

    This is a dangerous lead of thought, because it ends up arguing that somehow, somewhere, the rule of law ceases to be: to take someone else’s private property will then be OK. When we demand law and order from those conditionally and temporarily chosen to lead in government, we become absolutists and moralists.

    Denel (and by implication the Department of Defence and the executive) would probably not take too kindly to being lumped together with quote the scum and the scourge of the planet. Profiteering from war, selling sub-standard weapons to countries who can’t afford them and don’t need them, deliberately manipulating governments end quote.

    Exponents of moral relativism claiming that this higher wisdom has been revealed to them, do it for a variety of tactical reasons. Lenin and Hitler did it to get their hands on power and to exterminate an entire class or race of people; some are just brown-nosing for lucrative government contracts for their companies. What’s your reason?

  • malumalu

    No matter how we look at this arms deal nonsense, there is no outcome that will serve the majority of people’s interests.

    We are likely to appease some quarters who think they have the morality and ethics to shout!

    In reality, the whole deal is a mess and has taken a lot of tax payers’ money and we are now burning more cash on useless investigations and court cases.
    In whose interest is this? It may not be moraly right but blind pursuit of it is also futile waste of taxpayers’ money and definitely not in the interest of ordinary citizens.

  • DaLoCo

    Jarred, you make it sound like they goverment’s action was akin to making a wrong turn and getting lost. The problem is that the only way top get back on track is to return to the point where the wrong turn was made. To overlook the “mistake” made with the arms deal would be to endorse the action. The result is that the greater good you propose will be undermined.

    To truly forgive one needs to know the extent of the sin. You cannot in all honesty expect people to intelligently forgive that which is purposely with held from them. Forgiveness is normally followed by closure, which inherently relies on full disclosure.

    The other problem I have with this suggestion is that, given the same situation, and the same circumstance I cannot be sure that the involved parties will not make the same mistake again. The choice they made towards corruption speaks of moral bankruptcy, not procedural inexperience. The poiwers to be have been in politics for a long time, the only change was the access to resource. They have had to wheel and deal for ages to get enough armament to fight for freedom….I do not buy that they were naive. The flip side is that by implication you are agreeing with the racists that the ANC government are a bunch of idiots.

  • Obzino Latino

    This country requires men and women of your calibre, people who can think rationally as opposed to being obssesed, think out of the box as opposed to being enslaved to the so called truth. The worse thing to do under the current circumstances sorrounding the arms deal is to opt for selective morality and short memory regarding both the history and future of our country. This country can’t afford to loose everything it sacrificed for and settled for based on obssession over selective morality and so called truth.

  • Jessica

    there needs to be honesty and there needs be accountability for one’s actions, otherwise where do you draw the line in future?

    The politicians who granted themselves state-sponsored vacations and other luxuries (at the expense of the tax payer and the country’s many poor who desperately need that funding) have already gotten away with it. This arms deal fiasco is just another– although far more alarming and morally repugnant– example of how the ANC is able to behave as they please because they have declared themselves above the law; and if all else fails– thay can just brand anyone who disagrees with them a racist!

    this country NEEDS change, what we certainly don’t need is to sweep the actions of these corrupt politicians under the rug so that we can maintain the status quo.

  • japes

    Oh dear the great SA debate between pragmatism vs truth, accountability vs show the taxpayer the middle finger. Really there should only be one honest answer; expose and bring the miscreants to book. A negative spin-off has been that every little Mbeki clone in each dusty, ANC created municipality buys himself a top of the line Benz, gives himself a few municipal contracts and employs his family and henchmen. The ratepayers grumble and pack up; the poor remain thirsty and hungry in their dark shacks of rubbish.

    Viva the new SA.

  • Ali

    I agree with DaLoCo. Are you saying the ANC is a bunch of morons?

    “Hey, here’s a nice suite and R500 000 if you give me the deal. How does that sound?”

    “Uhm, now is this right or is this wrong? Shall I take it?”


    Come on Jarred, stop making apologies for the ANC as if they can’t do it for themselves. They’ve taken R90 billion from taxpayers and blew it on bloody war machines. In a country with dire developmental needs! How on earth can you come up for that? And it seems that they’ve taken many millions in bribes as well.

    I think the poor people of this country should be livid about this. You can’t go worse than the Nats, but at least they looked after the people who voted for them.

  • http://letpeoplespeak.amagama.com Lyndall Beddy


    If you leave the thieves in power, they will continue to steal.


    “They have had to wheel and deal for ages to get enough armament to fight for freedom”

    That is not true but ANC myth. They were a spoilt bunch who were supported by Christians in the West, and by Russia in the camps. Then both the Russians and the Christian West withdrew funding to force them to negotiate. When they came into power they were broke – and the allegations are that they then did a deal which wasted money needed for the poor, to get the kickbacks.

    Read “White Lies” by Denis Herbstein and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert’s books

  • Garage trash

    @ Obzino Latino
    “This country can’t afford to loose everything it sacrificed for and settled for.. ”
    1. Prosecuting corrupt politicians will bring white rule and apartheid back?
    2. The ANC does not have other more morally sound individuals who could replace these crookies like in society would be deprived of something divine if they were hammered?
    Please explain your drift man…

  • XNM


  • http://drivingforcelantic.net Bernard K Hellberg

    I see skinny threadbare black kids begging at intersections.

    I see black people living without shelter in the open veld.

    I see a sub-standard black-painted German submarine.

    I see red.

  • owen

    The problems in the ANC are NOT about the arms deal BUT about 2 factions trying to control the heart of the ANC. So don’t waste your time on amnesties etc as the fight will continue anyway.

  • Oosthuizen

    Africa has two problems:

    the one is the foreign corrupt organisations that control african resources through corrupt african leaders.

    the other is the african leadership and it cohorts who readily apply themselves to the bidding and call of these corrupt foriegn organisations from the west and asia.

    Owen, what is feasibility for the ousted faction to start a new party ?

  • Scarface

    Jarred, why must the Public Taxpayer and the poor step aside? The fact that these ruthless crooked rulers of ours don’t step down for their people, just shows you ho much more they will steal if they had the opportunity!

    Please think again about this, rather educate the Zuma fans that backing Zuma blindly is not in their interest!

  • http://letpeoplespeak.amagama.com Lyndall Beddy


    Reading M&G this weekend I read what they quoted from this blog again.

    The SA government was “manipulated” by arms dealers “against whom they were too green to defend themselves”.

    Rubbish! Both Mandela and Mbeki were educated men.

    There has never been any rational explanation as to why an already highly militarised SA (from apartheid days) needed more weapons at all, instead of houses, schools and hospitals.

    Feinstein says the whole deal was done for the kickbacks because the ANC was broke, in order to fund the 1999 election campaign.