Denel may imminently sign a contract to sell R4.5billion worth of missiles to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt, says the writer. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

Denel has been in urgent need of a lifeline beyond government bailouts, but if keeping the state-owned aerospace and military technology conglomerate afloat means arming some of the world’s most repressive regimes, then is it really worth it? 

Maybe it is time to re-purpose Denel into a highly sophisticated scientific research outfit that can continue developing intellectual property, but not the kind that is used as weapons of war.

Denel seems to perpetually be putting our declared human rights foreign policy to the test.

We only just put to bed the issue of Denel selling its intellectual property (IP) to Saudi Arabia’s state arms manufacturer given that it is prosecuting a brutal civil war in Yemen.

Now we are faced with the prospect that Denel may imminently sign a contract to sell R4.5billion worth of missiles to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt in order to keep itself afloat without government bailouts.

It is obvious such a deal would solve Denel’s financial misfortunes for a few years, given that it made a R1.76bn loss last year.

In August the government had to pump R1.8bn into Denel to ensure it could pay its employees and suppliers.

The fundamental problem with this solution to Denel’s problems is that it is in direct contravention of our law, and there is simply no way around that unless we amend our existing legislation. The National Conventional Arms Control Act specifically stipulates that South Africa will not export armaments to countries that abuse human rights, countries in conflict, or countries that are subject to UN or other embargoes.

It is disingenuous for our Arms Control Committee to say that Egypt is not under an arms embargo when the legislation makes it quite clear that we are not to sell arms to countries that abuse human rights.

On that score, Egypt is arguably one of the worst offenders. Even though the contract is to supply Egypt with Umkhonto-R missiles which are fired from warships and built to shoot down planes and drones - which are unlikely to be used against civilians - it doesn’t change the fact that it would be rewarding a repressive regime engaged in serious human rights abuses with an arms bonanza.

There is no question that our government is in a difficult situation given that our economy is in dire straits, and we are trying to find ways to keep our state-owned enterprises afloat and ultimately profitable. But part of having a human rights foreign policy is to consistently weigh the behaviour of governments against their people, and make a proper determination as to whether we should be supporting such governments with our made-in-South Africa armaments.

After the mass killing of civilians by Sisi’s security forces in 2013, the EU imposed an arms embargo on Egypt in order to combat internal repression and extreme violence. The embargo was reaffirmed in 2014 and has not been rescinded given that the human rights situation has been deteriorating ever since.

After the brutal killing of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni by the Egyptian security forces in 2016, the EU parliament passed a resolution calling for the cessation of all forms of security co-operation with Egypt.

The reality in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch, is that since 2013, Sisi has crushed all basic rights and presided over endemic torture, enforced disappearances, and the execution of over 500 in extra- judicial killings.

Tens of thousands have been detained without access to lawyers or family, and are kept in detention in deplorable conditions for months without judicial review. It has been widely alleged that detainees are deprived of adequate food and medicine. Thousands of civilians have been sent to military courts, and the government has banned independent organisations and peaceful assembly.

In the past two weeks when hundreds of youths came out onto the streets to protest against government corruption and repression, more than 2000 were arrested and interrogated, and security forces have even arrested lawyers supporting detainees.

The press has been muzzled, and the government has banned independent civil society and peaceful assembly.

UN human rights experts have condemned Egypt’s human rights abuses and torture, and Egypt’s human rights review at the UN Human Rights Council will take place next month.

The message the world and South Africa needs to send to Egypt is that its human rights abuses will not be tolerated and that there should be no selling of arms to Egypt while this situation continues.

All of this will be difficult to accomplish on a political level if concurrently our state-owned arms company Denel is preparing to arm the Sisi regime with weapons of war.

The National Conventional Arms Control Committee chaired by Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu needs to play its intended oversight role and block Denel from proceeding as planned in contravention of South African law.

* Ebrahim is Independent Group Foreign editor.