The arms deal, approved by parliament in 1999, includes fighter-trainers and Gripen fighter jets from the British-Swedish consortium Saab/BAE, submarines and corvettes from Germany and Agusta helicopters from Italy. The package also came with conditional guarantees from the arms sellers for an estimated $18 billion in job-creating trade and investment an "offset" deal that opposition critics argued was a recipe for corruption. Even as the agreement was being signed, an opposition M.P. rose in Parliament with allegations of bribes and kickbacks, charges she said came anonymously from "concerned" members of the A.N.C. itself. Though the government strongly denied irregularities, whispers of corruption continued. Finally, at the beginning of this year, the government agreed to set up a joint investigative team from the offices of the Auditor General, the ombudsman-like Public Protector and the National Director of Public Prosecutions.
Yengeni, a brash and flamboyant former guerrilla fighter with the A.N.C.'s old militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), has a reputation for high living. "There's nothing wrong in loving the good things in life," he says. A Communist Party organizer who grew up in the black township slums of Cape Town, he makes no apology for being what South Africans call a waBenzi, a category of highflyers who favor Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
In his case, it's a gleaming, $50,000 Mercedes-Benz ML320. South Africa's national Sunday Times last month alleged that the car was originally a "private staff vehicle" for DaimlerChrysler Aerospace. That firm, through a joint venture, secured a $27.5 million contract to supply tracking radars for the German corvettes in the arms deal. Yengeni, the newspaper said, began paying for the vehicle only seven months after it had been registered in his name, just as questions were first being asked about how he had acquired it.
Yengeni insisted he had legitimately bought the car and that its acquisition "in no way amounted to a gift or a donation" or influenced the awarding of an arms contract. He described the newspaper's allegations as being part of a political conspiracy and "a witch-hunt" against A.N.C. politicians. A spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler says the company is conducting an "internal investigation" into reports that the car was apparently bought by a senior staff member of DaimlerChrysler Aerospace a firm that has since become a component of the joint venture involved in the supply of radar equipment before it ended up in Yengeni's possession. All the documents relating to the vehicle were subpoenaed and placed in the investigating team's files. A week later the Sunday Times reported that investigators were also looking at the purchase of another Mercedes, a silver C180 valued at around $22,500 and belonging to Yengeni's wife Lumka.
Documents submitted to the arms inquiry named several other high ranking A.N.C. members, including former Defense Minister Joe Modise and Shamin Shaik, who was the head of arms procurement in the Defense Department. Modise, the former commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, signed a draft agreement for the purchase of three submarines from a German consortium three days before retiring from his ministerial post. Shortly afterward he obtained a loan to buy substantial shares in a company, of which he is now chairman, that has interests in the armaments industry. Press reports have also alleged that Shaik has family links to firms that have been awarded major local contracts as part of the arms-offset package.
Like Yengeni, those named in the allegations deny impropriety. Modise dismissed the attacks on him as "lies and gossip." If the inquiry comes up with real evidence of wrongdoing, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, who has made the war against corruption a national priority, may have the unhappy task of taking tough disciplinary action against some of those near and dear to him.