Thousands of South Africans involved in security work in Iraq and other countries embroiled in conflict will have to give up their lucrative careers or face up to five years in prison when a bill on the regulation of private security operators is signed into law.
The Prohibition of Mercenary Activity and Regulation of Certain Activities in a Country of Armed Conflict Bill is expected to be enacted before the end of the year by President Thabo Mbeki. It is intended to close the loopholes used by former policemen and former soldiers wanting to do security work in war-torn countries.
But security workers will have a few months' reprieve during which they can apply for permission to work in "regulated" countries such as Iraq.
Once the bill has been passed the out-of-bounds countries must be identified and listed in the Government Gazette.
The anti-mercenary laws will make it tougher for South Africans to sign up with foreign armies and if they do they will not be allowed to take part in armed conflict.
The new mercenary activity act will replace the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act of 1999, which the government contends lacks the teeth the state needs to secure the conviction of mercenaries.
The bill has been toned down significantly since its first draft, which would have put a stop to humanitarian work in countries considered by the South African government to be in conflict.
There are no official statistics but the number of South Africans involved in Iraq and other conflict zones is estimated to be between 2 000 and 20 000.
There's even a saying doing the rounds on Iraqi internet blogs: "You know you've been in Baghdad too long when hearing Afrikaans at the pool is normal."
Hundreds of South African policemen and soldiers were being head-hunted by recruitment agencies for private security companies and scores left the services to work in Iraq - lured by salaries of more than $120 000 (about R865 000) a year. At the height of the Iraq recruitment drive, about two years ago, almost the entire special task force of the police in Durban resigned.
Policemen who leave the SAPS do so knowing that there is a moratorium on re-enlistments. A number of South African security companies have secured lucrative contracts in Iraq.
Though it is not yet illegal for South Africans to undertake security-related work in Iraq, a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, Len le Roux, said anyone with an employment link to that country should get legal advice.
For a country to be classified as regulated for the purposes of the new mercenary activity act the government's national conventional arms control committee must inform the cabinet that a conflict exists or is imminent in that country. The president may then proclaim the regulation of the country in the Government Gazette.
The act will prohibit all security work by South Africans in regulated countries, including giving advice, providing training or recruiting.
The bill makes provision for a South African enlisted in a foreign armed service at the coming into force of the act to apply for authorisation to continue doing so within six months. The same applies to anyone involved in security work.
A number of local security companies, and international companies with South African links, will have to rethink their business strategy. Erinys International is a British security firm with offices in Johannesburg. It employs several hundred South Africans in Iraq.
The company challenged the bill on the grounds that it violated section 22 of the constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of occupation.
It has been reported in the British press that the company removed 100 South Africans from its payroll.
The South Africa-based security company Omega International Assistance, which operates abroad, said it supported the government's attempts to regulate foreign military assistance by South Africans and to eradicate mercenary activities.
Alex de Witt, the CEO of Omega, said the company was registered and conformed to all the statutory requirements for operating in foreign countries and so would not be affected by the new legislation.
He said it was impossible to estimate the number of South Africans working in the security industry abroad because many worked for foreign companies, non-government organisations or the United Nations.
"Security-related business scaled down immensely over the past six months and even at the peak period we estimate that there were no more than 2 500 South African security personnel employed in Iraq," said De Witt.