Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

A group of senior South African Government ministers has moved to defend the purchase of Saab/BAE Systems Gripen fighters and BAE Hawk trainers against allegations of corruption during the nation's R30.3 billion ($3.9 billion) re-armament programme.

South Africa's ministers for defence, finance, public enterprises and trade and industry acknowledge that controversy continues to dog the deals but argue that three major reviews over the past year have failed to understand the intricacies of the acquisition process.

A joint statement acknowledges that the Hawk decision remains at the centre of the allegations as Aermacchi's MB339 proposal "was cheaper".

Pretoria signed deals in December 1999 for nine Gripens and 12 Hawks along with 30 Agusta A109 light utility helicopters, plus submarines and corvettes. Also included were options for 19 Gripens to be exercised by 2004 and 12 Hawks to be exercised by the end of next year.

The corruption allegations centre on claims first made in late 1999 by Pan African Congress MP Patricia de Lille that several government officials, including ministers, accepted bribes from foreign bidders. Subsequent investigations have alleged conflicts of interest between senior members of the assessment team and the employment of immediate family members by local companies involved in teaming arrangements.

The ministers' statement says that the bidding process for the trainer and fighter requirements produced "two groups of possibilities in regard to the links between trainers, advanced trainers and advanced fighters. This meant a number of permutations were possible and were presented to the committee of ministers. After careful consideration and taking many factors into account and respecting the bidding parameters the decision was to go for the Hawk-Gripen combination.

"The cabinet is clear that this is the correct process and that no undue influence could have been exercised given that very different considerations influenced different ministers in their views and that the decision was reached after detailed consultation."

The statement says that the Gripen was selected before the Hawk decision and that some of the fighter's "specific features" require a high performance trainer. "The simple fact is that it is not feasible, for our purposes, to graduate from an Aermacchi trainer, no matter how good it was or its price, to Gripen."

The statement also asserts that Aermacchi has not complained about the selection process although "if the conduct had been improper it is within their rights to do so".

Last October, a report by the South African Parliament's public accounts committee recommended a major review of the deals being carried out by a multi-agency task force that was established midway through November.

That investigation has in turn raised further controversy with ministers making recommendations to President Thabo Mbeki that the task force should not include the presidentally appointed Special Investigations Unit, created to monitor corruption.

The unit, headed by Justice Willem Heath, investigated de Lille's allegations in January-May last year. Mbeki was expected to make a final decision on the composition of the task force late last week after Flight International closed for press.

Separate investigations into the allegations were carried out in the first half of last year by the South African Auditor General, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Department of Defence.

The ministers' argue that reports by the Auditor General and the public account committee are based on incomplete information and an inadequate understanding of the selection process.

BAE says it supports the government and looks forward to the investigations beginning so that reputations can be cleared.

Source: Flight International