The Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa

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"To be or not To be: the fate of "project Spear"

Before the old ship that was the Apartheid order sank in the seas of the 1994 democratic transition, public funds were "invested" by the former governor of the Reserve Bank in "lifeboats" to failing Apartheid era banks. Amounting to an estimated 30 Billion Rands, it has been alleged that these transactions were illegal and that all money transferred by them is recoverable with interest. The issue of whether or not these lifeboat deals where in fact unlawful is one with the potential to inject vast sums into the current embattled economy. These funds could then be applied towards public projects in a country at present struggling to house and educate its population. Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of recovery, the South African government has walked away from a contract it concluded with British investigation company CIEX to take the matter further. "Why?" is the natural question, and yet no satisfactory explanation has been given. The Project Spear documentary seeks to unpack some of the issues surrounding the lifeboats saga and offers an interesting look at the pot of gold hidden away from the Rainbow Nation.

Owing its name to the title of a comprehensive plan envisioned by CIEX to recover public monies misappropriated before the transition, the Project Spear documentary was commissioned for roughly R280,000 by the SABC in 2011. The national broadcaster, however, has since refused to program the short film produced by Sylvia Vollenhoven on the basis that it contains defamatory material.

Vollenhoven's documentary uses young break-dancers dressed in ill-fitted black suits and shades to dramatise the lifeboat story as it is told from the perspective of parties fighting for the matter to be reopened. Interview footage is interspersed with scenes of the youthful South Africans seated in shadowy boardrooms, involved in apparently suspect exchanges. The contrast is engaging.

As former Reserve Bank employees, present Reserve Bank shareholders, top investigative journalists and anti-corruption lawyers detail what they believe to be a cover-up that is perhaps worse than the initial crime, efforts to obtain comment from the Reserve Bank and government officials themselves are without success. Those who do appear on camera include former judge, Willem Heath, and deputy Chief Executive of ABSA Bank, Louis von Zeuner. The once-famed corruption buster turned advisor to the presidency and the current banking giant who holds the nickname "King Louis" are both seen looking less than comfortable at the direction of questioning. Heath, with arms tightly crossed over his chest, explains the decision he took while serving as an anti-corruption official for the ANC government not to order recovery of the Reserve Bank "loan" to ABSA's predecessors. According to him, pursuing the matter would have been too detrimental to the South African economy. Meanwhile, von Zeuner, looking as though he has unwittingly landed in the line-up to a penalty kick of a soccer match he does not wish to play, maintains that nothing untoward was done and that ABSA, having no skeletons in the corporate closet, would cooperate fully with any investigation undertaken.

Their side of the story stands in contrast to that given by NUMSA president, Comrade Gina, and Noseweek editor, Martin Welz, who allege that the Reserve Bank is operating not in the interests of the South African people, but in order to protect the commercial banks. They allege that this direct contradiction of the bank's constitutional mandate to operate without fear or favour forms part of the reason that government has chosen to abandon the lifeboats investigation. Director of the Institute for Accountability, Advocate Paul Hoffman, and activist Terry Crawford-Brown, argue in agreement that instances of past corruption need to be dealt with if the government is serious about rooting the scourge out of the current dispensation. If corrupt acts are seen to go unpunished, they say, the phenomenon will inevitably filter through society, leaving public projects flailing in its wake.

Project Spear is a revealing documentary that directs necessary questions at an issue of immediate relevance to the South African people. Yet, our national broadcaster has declined to make the work public. What is perhaps most disturbing is that this comes as no surprise. To a young South African, the almost immediate response to the knowledge that this documentary will likely never be screened on national television is to accept it as inevitable that a government-funded operative would be unwilling to screen material which criticises its primary backers. This ought not to be the case. The constitution grants express protection to press freedom. What is more, the highest court of the land has time and again acknowledged the essential role played by the media in strengthening a young democracy by providing citizens with the information that allows them to make informed personal and political decisions. The ability of the populace to hold its leaders to account rests largely on the media's capacity to do their jobs. It is for this reason that the court has upheld reasonableness as the test to which publication of material might fall in cases of alleged defamation by the media. Rather than showing that information broadcast is true and in the public interest, it must be shown that publication of such information was reasonable. This standard is believed to avoid the chilling effect that a requirement of truth might have on bodies doubting their ability to disprove falsity in a court of law, given the admissibility of evidence and need to protect sources, among other factors. With this as precedent, it is beyond reasonable comprehension why the SABC has shrunk away from broadcasting the Project Spear documentary, prima facie defamatory though it might be.

This nation will fall at the feet of corruption if we are unable to achieve true transparency in governance. And true transparency will remain beyond reach if our national media is unable to act with a reasonable degree of courage. The Project Spear documentary has managed to make complex subject matter accessible and understandable. It positions the Rainbow Nation in opposition to the undeniably dark underbelly of our country and presents these two faces without attempting to mask the one or placate its audience with tales of a not-yet-realised happy ending.

The nation-building campaign advertisements televised in the 1990s have had the desired effect, producing Proud Free-Born South African after Proud Free-Born South African. Their impact, however, will be nullified if the now patriotic youth tasked with continuing the project of national transformation are unable to also be critical. This documentary needs to be screened so we can see the other side. The decision of the SABC to offer the documentary for sale rather than expose itself to claims of maladministration and wasteful expenditure will hopefully lead to the documentary being flighted on independent television channels.

Kyla Hazell - Rhodes University Law student and intern to IFAISA
Supervised by Paul Hoffman SC.

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