Mbeki defends arms deal at inquiry

The former president insists the arms deal was constitutional and above board.

Former president Thabo Mbeki during a break in proceedings at the Seriti Commission of Inquiry where he is testifying in Pretoria. Picture: Sapa

JOHANNESBURG - Former President Thabo Mbeki on Thursday defended the controversial multibillion rand arms deal by saying it was constitutional and above board.

Mbeki has presented his evidence at the Seriti Commission of Inquiry's sitting in Pretoria.

President Jacob Zuma set up the commission to investigate fraud and corruption related to the arms deal.

As the deputy president at the time, Mbeki chaired an inter-ministerial committee responsible for decisions that led to the procurement of the deal.

He was responsible for the deal and signed off on contracts.

Mbeki's evidence follows that of former Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel and Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota.

Mbeki dismissed Advocate Paul Hoffman's proposition that cost was not a factor when the decision was made to authorise the arms deal.

"At no point did we as the inter-ministerial committee consider anything without taking cost into account. We were conscious of our responsibilities."

Hoffman appeared to lose his composure, pleading with Mbeki to accept responsibility for the procurement.

"Mr Mbeki, I beg you, think about it. What has your Cabinet done?"

Mbeki insisted the deal was constitutional and above board.

He defended the arms deal, saying there were constitutional imperatives and changing demands on the country requiring the government to re-equip the defence force.

Mbeki also told the commission he felt offended by Hoffman's reference to state officials as "minions".

He further objected to Hoffman's suggestion that his own legal representative objected to a question to allow him time to find an answer.

Judge Willie Seriti on numerous occasions interrupted Hoffman and disallowed his questions.

More time has been spent debating whether questions are admissible and dealing with objections than Mbeki answering questions.

Mbeki said earlier that the decision to buy arms was unanimously adopted by Parliament after an exhaustive and transparent process was completed.

The former president says there was a need to acquire modern technology to enable the defence force to operate in a global arena.

Mbeki also said there was a need to shift the attitude of the population towards the defence force, which had historically been used by the apartheid regime to oppress the people.

He maintained that all the decisions related to the arms deal were taken by Cabinet as a collective, not individuals.