Peter Batchelor. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Volume 54, Issue 5. September/October 1998.
On state visits early this year to several countries in Asia and the Middle East, President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa held formal discussions about the sale of South African armaments and defense equipment. If these sales materialize, they will provide much-needed relief to South Africa’s defense industry, which has been forced to downsize since the early 1990s because of the ending of apartheid and the Cold War.
However, the prospect of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and China will also fuel continuing debate in South Africa over the links between arms sales and violations of human rights-as well as the growing contradictions between the country’s arms export practices and its stated foreign policy objectives.
Possible sales to Asia and the Middle East come on the heels of a number of controversial deals or proposed sales to countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Algeria, Colombia, Syria, Turkey, Taiwan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The controversial arms deals, or “near deals,” include:
* In September 1996, the government approved the sale of arms to Rwanda, despite the recent genocidal bloodshed in that nation. Opposition parties and local and international human rights organizations condemned the decision, arguing that if the sale went ahead, it would feed a growing international perception that South Africa was becoming a destabilizing force on the continent.
The sale was suspended two months later as a result of the unstable situation in Central Africa and because there was evidence that Rwandan armed forces had made cross-border excursions into the former Zaire. Then, in the face of widespread criticism from local and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the government lifted the suspension in July 1997. Commentators argued that the arms could end up being transferred to Rwanda’s neighbor, Burundi, which was experiencing its own civil war.
* In January 1997, the cabinet conditionally approved the sale of a tank firing-control system to Syria. The proposed sale provoked vigorous debate in parliament and was condemned by opposition politicians. Israel expressed concern, while the United States noted that development aid to South Africa might be curtailed if the proposed sale went ahead. (U.S. policy prohibits development assistance to countries selling military items to nations listed by the U.S. State Department as sponsors of international terrorism.)
The South African government responded to the U.S. threat by stating that South Africa was a sovereign nation and would make decisions based on its own interests. Mandela said that any decision on the sale would be “decided upon in the interests of South Africa, not by the influence of any other country or government.”
Defense Minister Joe Modise defended the proposed sale, saying that selling arms to Syria was acceptable because South Africa sells arms to Israel. Last March, however, the government announced that the deal with Syria was off, because “peace is in the interests of everyone in the Middle East.”
* In April 1997, the government decided to lift the arms embargo it had imposed on Turkey after a major Turkish incursion into northern Iraq against Kurdish guerrillas in April 1995. But in August of that year, the government decided to block a potentially lucrative sale of Rooivalk attack helicopters to Turkey, because of Turkey’s poor human rights record toward its Kurdish minority, and because of Turkey’s continued occupation of part of Cyprus in defiance of international law.
The decision, according to the government’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, was proof that South Africa was trying to find a realistic formula for balancing its trade, diplomatic, and security interests. The decision to block arms sales to Turkey was widely applauded in South Africa, but it also reflected the government’s uncertain approach to complex foreign policy issues.
* During a state visit to Indonesia in July 1997, Mandela said that South Africa would supply arms to Indonesia for external defense “without hesitation.” He added that he would not press the Indonesian government over East Timor, the scene of a long and brutal government suppression. Mandela’s comments drew criticism at home and abroad. Opposition politicians highlighted the fact that Mandela was breaking his promise that human rights would be the guiding principle of South Africa’s foreign policy.
The debate surrounding possible arms sales to Indonesia also underscored a growing belief within South Africa that the government rates South Africa’s “friends” by the support they gave the African National Congress (ANC) during the struggle against apartheid. Indonesia was a major funder of the ANC during the liberation struggle, and it has continued to fund the party since it came to power in 1994.
The Indonesian comments also added to the impression that South Africa is-in the words of parliamentarian Tony Leon-a “diplomatically unreliable country that favors countries that are internationally shunned or reviled for their policies.”
* Last March, the government approved the sale of defense equipment to Algeria, despite criticism from opposition politicians and humans rights organizations. The decision to sell weapons came as the Algerian government, which is involved in a bloody low-intensity civil war, rejected calls from human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, for an international inquiry on Algeria.
Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Kader Asmal, who heads the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, defended the sale, saying that the weapons would be sold only for external self-defense and would not be used for internal law enforcement.
Echoing the 1980s
Government approval of these various arms sales and proposed sales has fed the perception, domestically and internationally, that South Africa’s foreign policy is haphazard and that the government has failed to become a restrained and responsible arms trader.
Further, the deals suggest that maintaining jobs in the defense industry is more important than the government’s stated commitment to human rights principles, and that the ANC’s historical ties tend to override human rights concerns when it comes to approving arms sales.
In contrast, a 1997 survey of 3,500 South Africans found that 90 percent either did not want their country to sell arms at all (38 percent), or would only approve such sales under strict humanitarian guidelines. Only nine percent (mostly white, male, and well paid) said South Africa should sell arms to anyone who would pay.
Foreign governments and international non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also expressed concern over many of South Africa’s recent arms sales decisions. One international observer noted that “as time goes on the sense of South Africa as an ethical arms trader is dissipating.”
Meanwhile, the government’s response to criticism of its arms-sales decisions has been confusing. Some ministers, such as Asmal and Ronnie Kasrils, deputy defense minister, have consistently defended the government’s record as ethical, and have stated that a recipient’s respect for human rights is the paramount concern in arms-sale decisions.
Other ministers, such as Defence Minister Joe Modise and Aziz Pahad, deputy foreign minister, have adopted a hard-line position: they support arms sales because of their potential for creating jobs and earning foreign exchange. When the government’s arms trade decisions and foreign policy initiatives are challenged on the basis that they promote relationships with abusers of human rights, the response from ministers such as Pahad is that “engagement” is the most constructive way of doing business—that influence can be more effectively brought to bear on governments through diplomatic dialogue rather than by strident public criticism.
The irony of such comments, given South Africa’s recent history, is obvious. They echo the words that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used in the 1980s, when they repeatedly defended their relations with apartheid South Africa.
South Africa established a defense industry in the early 1960s. After the imposition of the anti-apartheid U.N. arms embargo of 1977, the industry expanded rapidly to supply South Africa’s armed forces with military equipment to defend apartheid against internal and external threats.
By the late 1980s the industry was largely self-sufficient and able to supply the South African Defense Force with the bulk of its defense equipment. Weapons and technology that could not be produced locally were acquired through smuggling and black market transactions.
South Africa began aggressively exporting arms in the early 1980s, because of rising overhead costs, excess production capacity, and poor economies of scale in the country’s local industry. Before 1980, South Africa’s only significant export market was white-run Rhodesia; but when Rhodesia became black-run Zimbabwe in 1980, this market disappeared.
South Africa’s surprise appearance at an international arms exhibition in Greece in 1982 marked the country’s official entry into the international arms market. At the same time new legislation was passed to regulate arms export policy; and a new international sales and marketing department, Nimrod, was created within Armscor, the state-owned arms production and procurement organization.
In 1982 South Africa’s arms exports amounted to about $20 million. By the early 1990s this figure had risen to more than $270 million. Despite the significant increase, in 1993 South Africa’s arms exports accounted for less than one percent of the global arms market.
Before the ANC-led government took over in 1994, most of the recipients of South Africa’s arms exports were governments or rebel groups in Third World countries-fellow “pariah states” that were also excluded from access to major suppliers. South Africa sold arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, to the Pinochet regime in Chile, to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to UNITA in Angola, and to Renamo in Mozambique. It also supplied arms to Peru, Morocco, Oman, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, and Rwanda.
By 1984, the relative success of South Africa’s arms export drive prompted the U.N. Security Council to unanimously adopt Resolution 558, which requested all states to voluntarily refrain from purchasing arms manufactured in South Africa.
The “unbanning” of the ANC and other liberation movements in 1990, and the start of constitutional negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid government, improved South Africa’s image abroad. As a result, the South African arms industry began to trade more openly in the international market, and South African defense firms attended arms bazaars in Chile, London, Malaysia, and Dubai.
The value of South Africa’s arms exports jumped from $78 million in 1989 to $271 million in 1993. After South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994, the United Nations lifted the arms embargoes against South Africa, and Armscor announced its intention to double the country’s share of the global arms market.
In addition to launching a massive international marketing drive, Armscor convinced the new ANC-led government of the economic and strategic importance of the domestic defense industry and the potential benefits of arms sales.
Multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations Development Program, expressed concern at the plan to promote arms exports. A senior development program official warned in 1994 that “the new South African government will have to be more careful about weapons sales…. South Africa [has] a moral responsibility not to fuel regional conflicts because it was the United Nations arms embargo that ultimately helped bring down apartheid.”
Downsizing the Industry
When the ANC came to power in 1994, it inherited a domestic defense industry considerably smaller than it had been in the late 1980s, and one that was struggling to survive.
South Africa’s defense budget had been slashed since the late 1980s because of South Africa’s military withdrawal from Namibia, because apartheid had ended, and because the Cold War was over. Since 1994, the ANC-led government has continued to cut the defense budget in an attempt to fund more pressing priorities, such as housing, education, and health.
Today the defense budget is about $2 billion, which represents a 60 percent cut in real terms since 1989. South Africa’s defense burden, as measured by the share of defense spending in the gross domestic product, has dropped to 1.6 percent from 4.3 percent in 1989.
The impact of these cuts on the defense industry has been dramatic. More than 100,000 jobs-66 percent of total defense industry employment-have been lost since the late 1980s, and the value of the industry’s output has declined by more than 50 percent. Many defense firms have gone out of business or exited the defense market, and large private-sector defense firms have acquired or merged with smaller and unprofitable firms. Meanwhile, most firms have attempted to diversify or convert to civilian products, or have embarked on major export drives to help offset declines in the local defense market.
Before April 1994, South Africa’s arms export business was conducted in a highly secretive fashion, because of the embargoes. Secrecy was institutionalized in various legislative measures; no information about the destination, the value, or the content of arms exports was publicly available.
According to Minister Asmal, chair of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, “We inherited an arms industry that was a Frankenstein. It was all-powerful and protected by the government in every way. It destabilized whole communities and countries-not only in our region, but also far from our borders.”
During the 1980s, the apartheid government enthusiastically embraced the arms industry’s export drive. Armscor established more than 130 front companies to assist with the import and export of armaments, and Armscor officials were given diplomatic status at many of South Africa’s foreign missions to facilitate arms transfers.
In 1990 the government established the General Export Incentive Scheme (GEIS) to encourage the export of manufactured goods by offering subsidies ranging between 14.5 percent and 19.5 percent of the value of each export contract. Most defense firms and nondefense firms have benefited enormously from the subsidies.
Denel, the state-owned armaments company, which was formed from Armscor’s production facilities in 1992, was the second largest recipient of GEIS payments in 1992. The GEIS subsidies were phased out last year and replaced by a range of new supply-side export incentive measures, including an export marketing and investment assistance program and an export finance guarantee program.
None of the new incentives is as lucrative for defense firms as the GEIS scheme, however. Still the ANC-led government, like the former apartheid government, has become a major supporter of the defense industry’s export drive, despite the industry’s unsavory origins. Even President Mandela, who once opposed the arms trade, appears to have been won over. Following the lifting of the U.N. arms embargo, Mandela said on state television in May 1994:
“I don’t think it would be fair to say that a particular country should not engage in trade in arms. Arms are for the purpose of defending the sovereignty and the integrity of a country … From that angle there is nothing wrong in having a trade in arms.”
Other government ministers, including Deputy President Mbeki and Defence Minister Modise, are enthusiastic supporters of the defense industry and use their foreign visits to promote arms exports and international collaboration with South Africa’s defense industry.
Deputy President Mbeki announced that since April 1994 South Africa had sold arms worth more than $600 million to 91 countries. The vast majority of these sales have been to developing countries, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. To support the defense industry’s export drive, the government helps maintain South Africa’s “arms export infrastructure,” including the use of civilian and military government personnel in overseas offices and foreign missions. The government also helps to fund weapons research and development and the defense industry’s international marketing efforts.
A large part of Armscor’s subsidy, which is part of the defense budget, is used to market South African armaments. Armscor maintains offices in the United States, France, Russia, Switzerland, Israel, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and China, and it helps underwrite the participation of South African defense firms at overseas and local defense exhibitions.
Department of Defence funds pay for ministerial visits, trade missions, attendance of civil servants and military personnel at international arms exhibitions, and the use of defense force equipment to transport armaments to international defense exhibitions.
Illegal Arms Sales
Since coming to power the ANC government has faced a series of armstrade scandals that have damaged its attempts to portray South Africa as a responsible arms trader. Most have involved individuals or companies, rather than the government, and they have involved illegal sales of small arms and ammunition rather than large conventional weapons. The recipients of these arms deals have tended to be governments and rebels in Third World countries, many of which are in the midst of civil wars or some form of intra-state conflict.
- In September 1994, Armscor was implicated in an aborted arms deal involving a consignment of small arms supposedly destined for Lebanon, which had in fact been sold to Yemen, a prohibited destination. This consignment was the second part of a dual shipment. The first shipment had found its way-illegally-to the former Yugoslavia.
- In November 1994, Human Rights Watch charged that elements within the South African armed forces continued to supply arms to UNITA in Angola for several years after the peace accords were signed. While the South African government denied these charges, it admitted that rogue elements within the South African defense industry and private companies could be supplying arms to UNITA.
- In mid-1995, Human Rights Watch alleged that certain South African individuals had been involved in selling arms to the Hutu government in Rwanda before their defeat in 1994 by the Rwanda Patriotic Front. While Armscor and the South African government stopped official arms sales in February 1993, unofficial sales by certain elements with the armed forces or within the defense industry continued into 1994.
- Last December, a report by Human Rights Watch stated that certain South African individuals and companies had been supplying arms and military assistance to rebel movements in Burundi with the knowledge of senior ANC and government officials. According to the report, South Africa serves as a conduit for arms traffickers to Burundi and as a base of operations for expatriate arms traffickers.
- In April, newspaper reports suggested that South African individuals and companies were still involved in supplying food and military equipment to UNITA in violation of a United Nations interdict. These allegations provide further support for reports, which appeared in June 1997, in which South African individuals were implicated in supplying arms and equipment to UNITA in Angola via Mozambique.
Such scandals have embarrassed the ANC-government. They have also highlighted the problems associated with implementing an effective arms control system, given the presence of rogue elements in the country’s armed forces and defense industry that have shown scant regard for the government’s new arms control system.
A New Policy
Before April 1994, Armscor controlled the export of conventional arms. In fact, it was charged with the marketing of armaments and the issuing of export permits, thus acting as both player and referee. In response to arms-trade scandals in 1994 and early 1995, the government appointed a ministerial commission to draw up a new armstrade policy.
The new policy was spelled out in the White Paper on Defence, which was approved by parliament in May 1996. The policy says that each arms export application is to be assessed by considering the recipient’s record on human rights and fundamental freedoms, its security needs, its record of compliance with arms treaties, and the effect of the transfer on South Africa’s national and foreign interests. It also says that South Africa will not “transfer arms to countries which systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Further, it says that South Africa will avoid arms sales if the weapons transferred are likely to be used to violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms or will contribute to regional conflict, or if the weapons are likely to be diverted or used to support terrorism.
According to the White Paper, all applications for arms sales must be approved by a new four-level control system, which includes a cabinet committee-the National Conventional Arms Control Committee-composed of six ministers and four deputy ministers.
Despite the new arms-trade policy, the ANC government has flouted its own policy guidelines on many occasions by approving a series of controversial arms sales. Many of the recipients of these sales and proposed sales-such as Rwanda, Algeria, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia-are authoritarian and undemocratic regimes, countries with poor human rights records, or countries experiencing various forms of intra- and inter-state conflict.
When the ANC-led government came to power in 1994, it committed itself to putting human rights concerns at the center of its domestic and foreign policy agenda. South Africa’s new constitution, approved in October 1996, commits all South Africans to the establishment of a society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights. The government consistently says that the advancement of human rights and the promotion of democracy are the pillars on which South Africa’s foreign policy rests.
Respect for human rights in the conduct of the arms trade is as much a legal as a moral duty, because these rights are enshrined in South Africa’s new constitution and in international covenants to which South Africa is a party. The constitution compels the government to adhere to international law, which prohibits the use and threat of force. It follows that South Africa is precluded from arming states that defy this rule.
In response to growing domestic and international criticism of South Africa’s arms sales, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs argue that deciding whom the country should sell arms to requires the “weighing of moral concerns against hard facts” the “hard facts” being the perceived need to maintain the defense industry, even if it means occasionally approving questionable arms sales.
According to Laurie Nathan, a member of the Cameron Commission of Inquiry, a governmental commission set up to investigate arms-trade issues, this is a false dichotomy:
“Firstly, invasions, civil war, and the killing and maiming of civilians are as much hard facts as moral concerns.”
“Secondly, ethical behavior is in South Africa’s long-term diplomatic and strategic interests. We are unable to compete equally with major powers in terms of trade and we do not have the clout to coerce states in any particular direction. Our international strength lies in the stature of our president, Nelson Mandela, and the success of our transition to democracy.”
“If we utilize these assets by promoting humanitarian concerns and contributing to peace initiatives, the longterm economic and diplomatic gains will be substantial. But if we squander these assets for the sake of short-term profits from arms sales, the damage will be felt by South Africa as well as by those at the receiving end of our weapons.”