The atrium at the Women's Gaol at Joburg's historic Constitutional Hill felt tense, cold and, at times, deafeningly silent as dark secrets were laid bare.
Some in the audience gasped, others kept their heads down as witnesses spoke of how dodgy arms deals and state capture had afflicted the country for decades.
This week several civil society organisations hosted the five-day People's Tribunal on Economic Crime. Panel chairperson and retired Justice Zak Yacoob tried his best to lighten the mood, interjecting with humorous questions or statements. But the thick tension in the room was hard to slice through.
On Wednesday Yacoob read out the tribunal's preliminary findings. Those who thought it all started with the 1999 arms deal and continued to President Jacob Zuma and his friends, the Gupta family, were misguided. If the information in the tibunal's possession is anything to go by, South Africa was taken for a ride by corporations and shady politicians long before that.
A booklet the organisers distributed last Saturday, the first day of the hearings, argues there was a strange narrative that "persisted in democratic South Africa that the apartheid government was at least a clean government and that corruption is a phenomenon of our democracyamp;".
"This argument often overlaps with a racist narrative that corruption is a reality of a black government. This is nothing but a myth,amp;" the booklet reads.
At the tribunal hearing it was probably the first time some had heard how the state's arms procurement agency Armscor used Belgian bank Kredietbank and its subsidiary Kredietbank Luxembourg (KBL) to take money out of South Africa to buy weapons during apartheid to bust the UN arms embargo.
The tribunal heard how, with the help of KBL, Armscor managed to set up more than 300 front companies in Liberia and Panama that operated 198 Kredietbank accounts through which money meant for weapons would be channelled out of the country. All this "made it impossible for those trying to monitor and enforce the embargo and compromised those fighting apartheidamp;".
In the end corporations like Kredietbank and KBL profited from the illicit dealings and failed to account for them - something the tribunal is now pushing for.
Yacoob said: "We would recommend the conduct of Kredietbank and the French government during the campaign be fully investigated. We appeal to the Belgian government to facilitate an investigation into Kredietbank to determine the truth.amp;"
With his days in government numbered, Zuma may return to Nkandla not to retire but to prepare for court to answer for arms deal-related corruption.
Yacoob and his adjudicators made connections between arms deals concluded by both the apartheid state and the democratic government. "We make the point that the 1999 arms deal and its corruption may not have been possible had it not been for the previously mentioned, grossly negligent or deliberate approach that facilitated violations of the UN sanctions.
"We are of the view that the likelihood of this corrupt activity continuing would probably have been considerably reduced had the apartheid sanctions-busting plot been fully investigated and those responsible been prosecuted and punished,amp;" he said.
On state capture, Yacoob said the panel recommends a full investigation and "that copies of this [preliminary report] be served on the government [possibly at the Office of the Presidency] and on other implicated private actorsamp;". It recommends that another copy and a summary of evidence be served on National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams, national police commissioner Khehla Sithole, Justice Minister Michael Masutha and Police Minister Fikile Mbalula with the request that a "full and thorough investigation of all allegationsamp;" be pursued urgently.
On Monday lawyer Ajay Sooklal testified that arms company Thales promised Zuma bribes of R500 000 a year to protect it in the investigation and that Zuma's former financial adviser Schabir Shaik received money from Thales through a Swiss bank account, some of which was given to Mac Maharaj and his wife,
But because civil society groups Corruption Watch and the Right2Know Campaign announced last year they would apply to have the report of the Seriti Commission into the arms deal reviewed, Yacoob recommended the documents his panel gathered be served on those implicated, the presidency and the ANC.
Neroli Price, a researcher from Open Secrets, said the tribunal was "not a legally binding process but a collection of indisputable evidence of crimesamp;".
The committee will spend the next three months gathering responses from those implicated, after which the final report will be compiled.
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