CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Former and sitting South African presidents could be subpoenaed to testify for a new corruption investigation into a multi-billion dollar arms deal that has cast a shadow over government for more than a decade, the justice minister said on Thursday.
President Jacob Zuma escaped graft allegations when prosecutors dropped charges relating to the 30 billion rand deal to buy European military equipment in the 1990s. But he has never quite escaped perceptions of impropriety over an arms transaction that saw his financial adviser jailed.
Former president Thabo Mbeki has also been implicated in the deal, which has been opened up to renewed scrutiny under an inquiry announced by Zuma last month.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the commission would have sweeping powers. "The regulations, amongst others, give the commission the power to subpoena witnesses, compel witnesses to answer questions, and the power of search and seizure," he said.
Asked whether Zuma and Mbeki could be subpoenaed, Radebe told reporters: "The commission ... are acting independently, but as the regulations indicate, they have the power to subpoena anybody, including members of the executive."
The investigation will also look into whether jobs and benefits promised for local companies materialised.
Radebe said it was not limited to South African shores, suggesting further scrutiny of European defence companies, including Swedish group Saab and Britain's BAE Systems which sold submarines, jets and other military hardware to South Africa in the late 1990s.
Analysts say Zuma may have launched the commission to deflect attention from a separate but similar investigation by an elite police unit called the Hawks.
The Johannesburg-based commission will be led by a sitting judge and its work could finger Zuma as he heads towards an African National Congress leadership election in a year.
But Radebe, seen as close to Zuma, painted a picture of a government committed to eradicating corruption, despite concerns that Zuma's administration is soft on graft.
"The establishment of this commission ... represents a watershed moment in the history of democratic South Africa, in a quest to rid our nation of what has become an albatross that must now cease to blemish the reputation of our government," he said.