, PRETORIA, July 17- Former South African president Thabo Mbeki was grilled Thursday over a multi billion dollar arms deal tainted by charges of corruption and kickbacks which have dogged the government for a decade.
Testifying before a commission of inquiry, Mbeki defended the decision in 1999 to spend $5 billion on arms including military aircraft and submarines despite widespread poverty in a country emerging from apartheid.
The government wanted to reclaim the defence force from the white minority apartheid regime ousted by former president Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in 1994, he said.
People needed to see “we have a new entity consistent with the new South Africa,” an apparently tense Mbeki told the commission headed by appeals court judge Willie Seriti.
He said the government followed the law in the deal, in which equipment was purchased from countries including Britain and Sweden, and denied any decisions were made by individual ministers.
“Over the years you’ve seen a lot of comments which seem to attribute particular actions, government actions, to individuals, which is not how our government functions,” Mbeki said.
“They have to report to cabinet.”
Current President Jacob Zuma is among senior government officials alleged to have accepted bribes from international arms manufacturers to influence the choice of weaponry.
A Zuma advisor was jailed for arranging bribes for Zuma in exchange for the contracts. He was released on medical parole six years ago.
The arms deal was signed by Mbeki as president at the time.
Critics have charged that the government appointed inquiry is toothless and is being used in an attempt to put the issue to rest.
Paul Hoffman, a lawyer representing anti arms deal activists, whose cross-examination of Mbeki was frequently interrupted by commission officials, questioned whether the inquiry was genuine or “a farce”.
Commission spokesperson William Baloyi said Mbeki’s testimony will conclude the first phase of public hearings designed to explore the rationale behind the deal.
The second phase of the investigation is expected to start next week and deal with allegations of fraud and corruption head on as whistle blowers take the stand.