No more arms for rights abusers
SA gets ethical about weapons
● Just three months into SA’s transition from apartheid to constitutional democracy, Armscor was caught red-handed exporting AK-47s, G3 semiautomatic rifles and ammunition to Yemen. Then as now, Yemen was torn apart in a vicious civil war, and subject to a UN arms embargo.
A delegation of the South African Council of Churches, of which I was part, just happened to be visiting Armscor’s headquarters in Pretoria on the very day that the news broke in August 1994. Armscor publicly insisted that the weapons were destined for Lebanon’s army, which the Lebanese consul in Johannesburg rigorously denied.
Andre Buys, Armscor’s general manager, told us that because we were a church group he would give us his “theological rationale” for arms exports. His bizarre explanation was: “South Africa is a Christian country, and therefore has a Christian obligation to support other Christian countries when and if they are attacked. With the support of the Israeli government, these weapons were consigned to Christian militias in Lebanon to defend themselves against the Muslims.”
“So how,” I asked him, “could these weapons end up in Yemen which, most certainly, is not a Christian country?” Buys’s limp response was that “Armscor could not be blamed for corruption in the international arms trade”.
The debacle was a huge embarrassment to president Nelson Mandela’s new government. The Cameron commission of inquiry into Armscor was appointed to investigate, and also to propose new arms export regulations. I was asked by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to represent the Anglican Church.
The bishops had resolved in synod that postapartheid SA should prohibit the export of arms. They proposed that the assets and resources of Armscor and Denel (hived off in 1992 from Armscor) should be converted to peaceful purposes.
Oliver Tambo had presciently declared some years earlier that “Armscor is a Frankenstein monster that cannot be reformed, and must be destroyed”. The Cameron commission’s report confirmed that Armscor was not only managerially incompetent, but also irredeemably corrupt.
Regrettably, Mandela himself intervened in the matter, naively declaring that SA would henceforth have a responsible arms industry, and that arms exports would create jobs and earn foreign exchange. Minister Kader Asmal was detailed to draft the National Conventional Arms Control Committee’s rationale and guidelines. The NCACC document declared that SA would not export arms to countries that abuse human rights, to regions in conflict or to countries subject to international arms embargoes.
Sadly, the NCACC proved a farce right from inception. By 1995 SA was again exporting weapons to Rwanda, which was still reeling from the 1994 genocide. Apartheid SA had been the third-largest supplier of weapons to Rwanda before the genocide.
Algeria by 1998 was SA’s largest arms export market. At the time Algeria was a military dictatorship and the country was being torn apart by civil war.
During parliamentary hearings in 2000, I challenged the director of the NCACC to justify South African arms exports to Saudi Arabia, given that country’s grotesque human rights history. Fred Marais’s response to me was: “Arabs don’t object to Saudi human rights practices. Who are we to impose our South African values on the Saudis?”
Fast forward now to 2019 when the new NCACC has blocked arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Ostensibly, both countries refuse to comply with conditions included on end user certificates regarding re-export of weapons. End user certificates have never been worth the paper that they are written on. Nonetheless, the resultant controversy regarding “inspection” now has much greater significance. About 85% of Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) production is exported, Saudi Arabia and the UAE being its main markets.
As the largest German munitions company, Rheinmetall has an appalling history. It used slave labour in Germany during the Nazi era. It violated the 1977 UN arms embargo against apartheid by shipping an entire ammunition plant to this country.
Given its history, it is inexplicable that Rheinmetall was permitted to take a 51% controlling shareholding in Denel Munitions in 2008. The minority 49% is held by the state-owned Denel. Denel is insolvent despite the tens of billions of public money poured into it since 1994. RDM is now headquartered at the old plant of Armscor’s Somchem in the Macassar area of Somerset West.
In addition to exports of munitions, RDM designs and installs entire ammunition factories. Former president Jacob Zuma and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman jointly opened a new $240m (R3.5bn) Saudi Arabian Military Industries factory at al-Kharj, south of Riyadh, in March 2016. This has taken on global ramifications since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
With the NCACC previously having closed its eyes to the implications of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, SA became complicit in the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen perpetrated by the Saudi/UAE coalition. The Yemeni port city of Hodeidah was devastated in August 2018 by a series of attacks by the coalition that targeted the harbour and the nearby alThawra hospital, where scores of patients were killed. The Bellingcat monitoring agency identified the mortar shells used as having originated with RDM.
RDM is arguing that the NCACC’s blockage of exports to Saudi Arabia and UAE will jeopardise jobs in Macassar. An explosion there in September 2018 killed eight workers. The reality is that these are poorly paid poverty jobs. Many die prematurely after developing cancer or heart disease because of ingesting chemicals whilst making munitions to kill people in Yemen and other countries.
Crawford-Browne is the country co-ordinator in SA for World Beyond War, a global movement to end all wars. In 2010, he took former president Zuma to the Constitutional Court to force Zuma’s reluctant appointment of the Seriti commission of inquiry into the arms deal scandal
Children at the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Sadah. Ammunition manufactured in SA has been identified as being used in a horrific attack on a Yemeni hospital.