An investigation into a $5.5 billion arms scandal that's shaking the ruling party here began this week in a tiny eighth-floor room of a Pretoria military building.
It's a decidedly unglamorous venue for what is becoming one of the most serious challenges faced by the government since the country's first universal elections swept African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994. And how the ANC handles the allegations is considered a kind of integrity test of the party, the media, and the judicial system.
"The stakes are very, very high," says Gavin Woods, head of the parliamentary watchdog committee that set the hearings in motion and a member of the opposition Inchoate Freedom Party. "If the worst-case scenario came to pass, it would be enough to shake the government really seriously."
Questions of corruption and mismanagement have dogged the government and the ANC in the two years since the arms deal was signed. Top ANC officials have been accused of taking kick-backs in return for lucrative arms contracts - and the ANC leadership of trying to cover up wrongdoing.
"There was no possibility of bias [in the selection of suppliers]," David Griesel, acquisition head of former state-owned arms manufacturer Armscor, said at the hearing Tuesday. Yesterday, South Africa's defense acquisition chief, Chippy Shaik, said that he had made no secret of the fact that his brother was director of a defense company. As part of the arms deal, his brother's company was awarded a contract to supply parts for four corvette ships.
Three statutory bodies are investigating allegations of widespread corruption linked to South Africa's plans to buy aircraft, patrol boats, and submarines from five European defense manufacturers.
Much of the outcry over the deal, and more than a few of the revelations of corruption, came from opposition parties and media who say that the ANC is attempting to block governmental investigation into misconduct by party members.
Earlier this year, a local newspaper reported that ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni had failed to declare a Mercedes SUV given to him by one of the companies involved in the arms deal. A parliamentary ethics investigation later cleared Mr. Yengeni.
"When we've got information, we just give it to the media," says Bantu Holomisa, president of the United Democratic Movement. "We're not going to wait for the inquiry. These hearings were designed to come up with findings that will be acceptable to the government."
Few critics expect that the hearings, which are expected to last for two months, will provide much clarity. The hearings will run concurrently with a separate forensic investigation by the same three government agencies.
Judith February, who has been following the case for the non-partisan democracy think tank Idasa, says her organization questions the wisdom of holding open hearings before all the evidence has been gathered. She says the hearings could endanger future criminal hearings, since evidence released in public during the hearings could become inadmissible in later proceedings.
"We're really worried that the public interest is not being served by having these hearings now," Ms. February says.
On Monday, the three-person committee leading the hearings banned TV and recording equipment from the proceedings, citing the need to protect witnesses. Local media accuse the state of trying to hide the hearings from public view. Two local television stations, including one that promised to broadcast the hearings live, are challenging the ban in court. Opposition parties also charge that the investigation is stacked with pro-ANC sympathizers. The panel leading the hearings includes two political appointees with strong ANC affiliations. Two top investigators from the third agency, the Auditor General's office, were recently removed from the investigation.
Opposition leaders like Mr. Holomisa want to see the investigation run by an independent judiciary, but have been outvoted by the ANC majority. A further blow to the independence of the investigation occurred earlier this year, when when President Thabo Mbeki barred well-respected judge Willem Heath from participation in the investigation.
Last week, the ANC speaker of parliament, Frene Ginwala, faced a confidence vote over using her position to quell debate on the arms deal. The vote, from which she emerged victorious, went straight down party lines.
The investigation of this scandal is "a litmus test for democratic accountability," says February. "I don't think we can say we've failed the litmus test yet, but there are serious concerns."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor