Impoverished South Africa buys Hawk jets for £1.5bn

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The Independent Online

The South African government has ignored opposition calls to cancel the purchase of 12 British Aerospace Hawk trainer jets in the second part of a fighter aircraft deal expected to cost $2.2bn (£1.5bn).

Under the agreement with British Aerospace, South Africa had until last Monday to cancel the second part of the arms acquisition deal reached last year.

The government has remained silent on its decision, but officials say it has decided to proceed with the purchase of the 12 Hawks at a cost of about $265m. South Africa has already bought 12 Hawks from British Aerospace and nine dual-seat Gripens made by British Aerospace and the Swedish firm Saab.

The first batch of Hawks is already being manufactured and will be delivered from 2003. The second batch will be delivered from 2006 following the government's decision to proceed with the deal.

A South African Ministry of Defence spokesman, Sam Mkhwanazi, refused to comment on the deal, saying the government would issue a detailed statement next week.

However, sources said the purchase was going ahead and thegovernment had rejected opposition calls to cancel the deal. The government has until 31 March, 2004 to cancel the third and last tranche of the arms deal which will see the acquisition of a further 19 single-seat Gripens.

Opposition parties and civic groups have been staunchly opposed to the second and third tranches. The main opposition Democratic Alliance described the decision to go ahead with the second tranche as irresponsible, saying the money could have been saved and used for other more pressing social needs.

The opposition's finance spokesman, Raenette Taljaard, told The Independent yesterday: "We had suspected that they would want to go ahead. As things stand, it is a counterproductive decision because the money could have been used to address more pressing needs."

Ms Taljaard said the money to pay for the second tranche could have been used to double the number of police officers, provide 4.5 million destitute South Africans with a basic income grant of R100 (£6) a month for one year, provide every child raped in South Africa since 1994 with medical treatment, a change of clothes and a teddy bear, with enough money left over to double the amount spent annually by provincial hospitals on treating Aids patients.

The money could also have been used to save the lives of the more than 53,000 babies born to HIV-positive mothers and offer housing subsidies for 337,500 homeless families.

The powerful South African Congress of Trade Unions (Cosatu) – an alliance partner of the ruling ANC – and the South African national non-government organisation coalition have also proposed cancelling the second and third tranches of the arms deal and spending the money on social services.

In November, an inquiry into the arms deal found "no evidence of improper or unlawful conduct" by the government despite allegations of widespread corruption.

The 380-page report found that the government's arms procurement procedures were open to abuse, and that some individuals had profited from the process of awarding contracts by receiving "favours" from bidders.

Nevertheless, the investigation cleared President Thabo Mbeki and his ministers and his party of any wrongdoing.