OR Tambo’s predictions on the arms industry relevant today
Our lodestar Oliver Reginald Tambo said in the 1980s: “Armscor is a Frankenstein which cannot be reformed and must be destroyed.” Tambo understood that the arms industry was a product of the apartheid machinery and mindset, and it would always serve the purpose of fanning the flames of conflict, and would ultimately be an impediment to peace.
Today, we have Denel producing weapons of war, the vast majority of which are made for export. There is no getting away from the fact that our armaments do end up on the battlefields of some of the most brutal civil conflicts in the world today.
Former president Nelson Mandela held the view that South Africa would have a responsible arms industry which would create jobs and earn foreign exchange.
Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way, primarily because Section 15 of the National Conventional Arms Control Act is not being enforced.
Section 15 stipulates that South Africa will not export armaments to countries that abuse human rights or are in regions in conflict.
What happened between April 30 and May 4 this year, when Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) exported considerable quantities of munitions to Turkey, is indicative of the fact that our legislation is being violated with impunity. Six Turkish A400 aircraft left Cape Town with sizeable loads of munitions in the middle of a pandemic, which was also in contravention of the Covid-19 aviation regulations.
Days after Turkey procured the munitions from South Africa, Turkey embarked on an offensive against Khalifa Haftar in Libya, in violation of the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in March: “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict in lockdown.”
South Africa was one of 53 signatories of the UNSG’s call, and we can only hope that munitions produced by RDM in South Africa are not found on the battlefields of Libya or Northern Syria.
On June 25, the Chair of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), Minister Jackson Mthembu, had to answer questions in Parliament posed by the Defence Portfolio Committee about the munitions sold to Turkey and the possibility that those arms ended up in conflict zones like Libya and Syria.
Mthembu first said he “did not know about Turkey, but if South African weapons were reported in any way to be in Syria or Libya, it would be in the country’s best interest to investigate and find out how they got there and who had messed up or misled the NCACC.”
When the NCACC suspended exports to Saudi Arabia after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, RDM shifted its focus to Turkey.
In June, Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told Parliament there was nothing to prevent South Africa from selling arms to Turkey and that RDM exports were approved by State Security, Defence Intelligence, and Dirco (Department of International Relation and Co-Operation).
But with Turkey militarily involved in the war in Libya, and their military offensive in Northern Syria against the Kurds, any armaments sold to Turkey could potentially end up in either of these conflict zones. It would be very difficult to properly investigate the end users of these arms exports.
This is precisely why our legislation prohibits weapons of war being exported to countries involved in conflict.
Rheinmetall is a German company that tends to locate its production in other countries. Some experts have alleged this is a way to bypass German arms control regulations.
Rheinmetall AG holding has a 51% stake in RDM, and Denel has a 49% share. Rheinmetall is likely to want to increase its stake in RDM to 100%. This is problematic given that 80% of RDM’s production is for export, not for local defence needs.
A recent study for Greenpeace undertaken by the Leibniz Institute Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research found that German-made weapons were fuelling conflicts around the world.
According to the study, many German arms end up in third countries in conflict and have also been used in the civil war in Yemen.
The study found that the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen were using armaments from Germany.
Given the track record of RDM in South Africa of producing armaments that have been sold to countries in conflict - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey as just some examples, calls have been made by activists like Terry Crawford-Browne to revoke Rheinmetall’s licence to operate in South Africa.
RDM develops, designs, and manufactures large and medium-calibre ammunition.
Crawford-Browne has criticised RDM for allegedly contaminating its properties in Somerset West, Wellington, Potchefstroom and Boksburg.
Two years ago, there was a tragic explosion at the RDM factory in Somerset West. It claimed the lives of eight workers, and there had been three previous incidents in the past decade.
Local residents reported two years ago that their houses had been shaken by the 2018 blast, and that a plume of smoke had lingered in the air.
Last year, a public meeting in Macassar near Somerset West called for an independent inquiry into what led to the blast. According to the Greater Macassar Civic Association and World Beyond War, the immediate environment around the munitions plant is contaminated.
Rheinmetall has a controversial history, having deliberately flouted the 1977 arms embargo the UN Security Council imposed against apartheid South Africa.
The company shipped an entire ammunition factory in 1979 to South Africa to manufacture propellant and 155mm shells for Armscor’s G5 artillery.
There needs to be greater introspection as to whether arms companies like Rheinmetall should continue to operate in South Africa and continue to export their arms to countries involved in conflict, sullying the good reputation of South Africa as a responsible international player.
Denel is in an untenable financial position, unable to pay salaries and being forced to use any bailout money to pay its debts. Danie du Toit, chief executive of Denel, likely realised the company was unfixable and resigned this week. He will leave office by August 15, after less than two years at the helm of the defence conglomerate.
It may be worth considering whether we should cut our losses and take the advice that Tambo would have likely offered if he were alive today: that arms companies with their roots in apartheid history cannot be reformed and should not continue to exist.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.