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?