Soft-spoken and deceptively mild-mannered, parliamentarian Gavin Woods is one of a new breed of heroes in post-apartheid South Africa. National disgust over government nepotism, corruption, and mismanagement has turned into cheers for Dr. Woods's battle to force politicians and bureaucrats - from the president and his Cabinet downward- to be accountable to Parliament.
At issue are accusations that members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have overspent and even siphoned off cash from a multibillion-dollar arms deal with European suppliers.
On one side of the battle are ANC members who say their first loyalty is to the party of Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa out of white-minority rule. They are adamant that the ANC reputation must not be besmirched.
On the other are ANC members who believe their first loyalty is to democracy and the public through Parliament. They're angry that party insiders appear to be covertly profiting from the arms deal, now subject to a national investigation.
The arms deal "is a test case for anti-corruption efforts and for this new democracy," says Lala Camerer of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies. "Parliament is turning out to be not just a rubber stamp" for the Cabinet, she says. "Parliamentarians are using the tools at their disposal. No one stands in Gavin Woods's way," she adds. "And there's also a lot of praise for ANC members of the committee who have asked a lot of tough questions."
Woods carries a big stick: He's chair of Parliament's public accounts committee that analyzes, verifies and queries government spending. In recent public hearings, the ANC-dominated committee has embarrassed the Cabinet by forcing defense officials to reveal colossal cost overruns in the Cabinet-approved arms procurement program.
In terms of rooting out corruption, Woods says South Africa "is a new nation at the top of what may be a slippery slope. We could go downhill as Nigeria did or we can become a shining example to the rest of the continent."
Woods and his committee are asking tough questions about contract provisions permitting primary contractors - the European arms manufacturers - to subcontract work to whomever they please, without South African government oversight.
It is alleged that senior members of the current and past ANC administrations may have created front companies which, in return for choosing certain primary contractors, were covertly guaranteed sizeable arms subcontracts from those primary firms.
Cost escalations in the deal are also a major concern. In just one year, the price tag for South Africa's new European-made helicopters, warships, submarines, and fighter aircraft has risen from 30 billion rand ($3.9 billion) to 43 billion rand ($5.5 billion). As the latest figure does not include the cost of financing the deal, it seems likely to rise even further. The committee finds it particularly curious that South Africa is paying twice the usual price for jet planes manufactured by a subsidiary of BAe Systems Ltd., formerly British Aerospace.
Even more damning is the revelation that the country is unlikely to see much of the 104 billion rand ($13.4 billion) in industrial and other spinoffs promised by European arms manufacturers who won the South African contracts.
The spinoffs were to create 65,000 new jobs in a country where unemployment is over 35 percent. The arms bill is now almost equivalent to the annual budget of the education department, which is struggling to meet the nation's needs.
"It would be too awful," says Douglas Gibson of the Democratic Alliance, the ANC's main opposition in Parliament, "if, instead of building up the South African National Defense Force, which is needed, or if instead of building schools, houses, hospitals, and roads, a large portion of the money has stuck to criminal fingers."
Woods says the spinoffs, called "offsets" in government parlance, make little sense and that the US and Canada have stopped using them in their procurement deals. "Why would a businessman say, 'Give me 30 billion rand in deals, and I'll give you 104 billion rand,'?" Woods asks.
He says the committee had to drag the news about the cost overruns and the looming failure of the offset program out of the defense staff: "I don't know. Maybe they were counting on a lack of Parliamentary oversight. It doesn't happen too often that Parliament criticizes the Cabinet."
Woods, who is a member of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, says some ANC names coming up in questionable aspects of the arms deal are also popping up in other major government spending programs.
These include the government's 15 billion rand ($1.9 billion) refurbishment of minibus "taxies," used by most South Africans for transport; issuance of a license for a new cellular telephone service; the national identity document program; government oil deals; and various privatization plans for government assets and companies.
'Nip this in the bud'
"This has to be nipped in the bud," says Woods. "We can't be caught asleep at the wheel with all these other deals, as we did with the arms deal [which was concluded prior to his nomination as chair of the committee]."
Last year, maverick member of Parliament Patricia de Lille told Parliament that worried ANC MPs- lacking confidence in their own party's willingness to fight corruption - had given her documentary proof of tainted aspects of the arms deal. Widely publicized hearings by the public-accounts committee in October 2000 have now unleashed what Woods expects will be "the largest investigation in South Africa's history."
The committee is joining forces with three other investigative and prosecuting agencies. With so many corruption- fighting agencies involved, none individually can quash the investigation due to political or other coercion. "The ANC is all pervasive and can pull many strings," says one ANC member who asked not to be named.
Essop Pahad, right-hand man to President Thabo Mbeki, has denied reports that he tried to quash the investigation. He has not denied he argued in Cabinet recently with Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who defended ANC members on the public-accounts committee.
"It's apparent to me that a lot of our ANC committee members are taking the strain" of pressure from their party, says Woods. "I'm aware of those who are prepared to resist it." One problem is that ANC bosses draw up the lists of people to stand for the party in elections.."
If I were in the ANC, my chances of being on that list would be zilch," says Woods.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society