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Bukurura, Sufian Hemed  (2006) Fighting side by side . Centre for Civil Society : -.

Civil society and the media have together contributed to the struggles of the poor, writes Sufian Hemed Bukurura

Procurement of military hardware is a political rather than a military decision. Like all other political decisions, it is subject to public scrutiny, especially by civil society and the media.

These bodies face enormous challenges in their oversight of political decisions. Challenges notwithstanding, the two sometimes work together, and generally compliment each other, for common causes.

This relationship was highlighted recently by Terry Crawford-Browne, who chairs Economists Allied for Arms Reduction – South Africa (ECAAR-SA), in a presentation at Diakonia Council of Churches in Durban.

ECAAR-SA is an international non-governmental organization, with a South African chapter.

It has worked hard to monitor the South African Strategic Defence Procurement Package, best known by its acronym the “arms deal.” ECAAR-SA has resolutely exposed corruption in the armament industry in general, and the procurement of ammunition in South Africa, in particular.

Since 1999, when government took the decision to spend R24.9-billion on modernizing the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the arms deal has haunted politicians and bureaucrats.

The cost of the purchase has already increased to R60-billion and suggestions are it will increase even further. As if that was not enough, controversies around the deal continue to emerge.

It has seen several commissions of enquiry, civil claims filed in courts, and three criminal cases.

New charges
The first enquiry was conducted jointly by the Auditor General, the Office of the Public Protector & the National Prosecuting Authority.

The second enquiry was chaired by Judge Joost Hefer. Even the Khampepe Commission, looking at the relationship between the Scorpions and the Police, was in some respects connected to the arms deal.

In criminal cases, Tony Yengeni and Schabir Shaik were prosecuted and sentenced to prison. Jacob Zuma is yet to hear whether the National Director of Public Prosecutions will institute new charges after an earlier case was struck off the roll in the Peitermaritzburg High Court.

There are more and more new allegations made, and names mentioned, each passing day. Yet, clarity as to what exactly happened, and who benefited from the deal, remain elusive.

Crawford-Browne addressed a packed Diakonia audience, asking a simple question: is the military necessary in a world of poverty?

He explored several issues.

First, prominent South African leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Mosiuoa Lekota said, at different times, several years before the deal was struck, that in the new dispensation, the country had more pressing problems and priorities.

At that time, investing in armaments was considered inconceivable.

A few years into democracy these pronouncements were forgotten.

The arms deal is justified as necessary and defended as a crucial component to economic growth.

Secondly, given the extent of poverty in the country, one would have expected public resources to be spent on priority areas such as education, health and housing.

Investing in the three areas could have been in line with, and gone a long way to realize, the provisions of section 198 (a) of the Constitution: “national security must reflect the resolve of South Africans as individuals and as a nation to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life.”

Thirdly, the benefits that were alleged to flow from investing in arms industry were exaggerated and have not in the remotest been realized. The “offsets” investments that were expected to generate foreign currency earnings and create massive employment, but have not been that impressive.

Crawford-Browne noted that the public has witnessed big corporations getting permission to invest abroad while foreign speculators have made huge profits by exploiting local opportunities in this country.

‘Casino economy’
As a result, South Africa has become a ‘casino economy’ with the poor being the main victims.

The treasury can no longer claim lack of financial resources. It has so much money that it can afford to subsidize wasteful industries like DENEL, as well as borrow from foreign banks to finance the purchase of arms.

On a positive note, he observed, South African poor people have become more aware of their plight.

Protesting injustice is on the increase.
Thanks to civil society mobilization and positive media reporting, the struggles of the poor are documented both for present knowledge and future history.

What we have learnt from ECAAR-SA struggles, and reports thereof in the media, is that civil society in general and the media have complemented each other to keep the issue in the spotlight. It has neither been easy nor entirely successful, but battles are being won, including discovery of many documents which could otherwise have been secretly locked away in government cupboards.

Crawford-Browne is writing a book that documents how precious public resources could have been better spent on pressing priorities.

Instead, leaders of a democratically-elected government chose to close their eyes on the needs of the majority and purchased arms and ammunition to prepare for non-existent threats. In the process, a few ambitious and greedy individuals took the opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority of poor countrymen.

The courageous role played by ECAAR-SA and the non-compromising media show that small but meaningful gains are part of a protracted struggle for a better country.

*Sufian Hemed Bukurura is a research director at the Centre for Civil Society

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