Mbeki takes the stand at arms deal inquiry

It’s hoped the former president will today share what he knows about the controversial arms deal.

Former president Thabo Mbeki during a break in proceedings at the Seriti Commission of Inquiry where he is testifying in Pretoria on 17 July 2014. Picture: Sapa

PRETORIA - Former President Thabo Mbeki has started testifying 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 controversial multibillion rand arms deal.

The former president chaired a cabinet committee responsible for the deal and signed off on contracts.

Mbeki's evidence today follows that of former minister of finance Trevor Manuel and defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota.

He has this morning 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 says the decision to buy arms was unanimously adopted by Parliament after an exhaustive and transparent process was completed.

He says as chair of an inter-ministerial committee, he played a supervisory role over arms deal work that was conducted at a ministerial level.

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

Mbeki says there was also 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.

The former president says all the decisions related to the arms deal were taken by cabinet as a collective, not individuals.

He says he has the firm conviction that the decision by cabinet to authorise the arms deal was constitutional, adding cabinet also ordered an investigation into the affordability of the project.

While Mbeki can't remember the details of the report, he says only once cabinet was satisfied that an affordable position had been attained were the contracts signed.

On the issue of the more expensive Hawk fighter trainer, the former president says it was chosen because of compatibility benefits that the cheaper alternative did not offer.

Arms deal activist Terry Crawford-Browne and lawyers for human rights have asked to cross examine Mbeki.

At the time of the arms deal procurement, Mbeki was the deputy president under Nelson Mandela.

Two days have been set down for the former president to testify, but Eyewitness News understands he is expected to conclude after just one day.

Meanwhile, the Right 2 Know Campaign is picketing outside the hearing.

It believes Mbeki can provide a full account of why the country committed to a multibillion rand deal.

The campaign's Murray Hunter says the former president should use this opportunity to come clean.

"When it comes to former President Mbeki, it is absolutely vital that he uses this opportunity to come clean on the arms deal's secrets. This is why Right2Know is picketing outside this morning."