Arms and Mandela?

The Rwandan government hasn't used sophisticated weapons to wipe out a quarter of a million human beings in a matter of weeks. It employed small arms, a good part of which came from South Africa

By Mohamed Urdoh | 1994-09-01 12:00:00

As the news of South Africa's arms supply to the beleaguered Rwandan government resonates across the globe, Pretoria is poised to dump more deadly weapons into the world marketplace.

Breaking the news in a recent 62-page report, Arms Watch Project (AWP) says it has obtained a document dated October 19, 1992, which shows that South Africa supplied Rwanda with a wide range of light arms. Specializing in monitoring the flow of arms from the rest of the world into countries known for violating human rights, AWP is a new organ of the Washington based, highly respected Human Rights Watch (HRW).

According to the AWP report, 3,000 Rwandan army troops are now equipped with South Africa-made 5.56 mm R-4 automatic rifles which can launch rifle grenades. It added that the Kigali-Pretoria deal also included 20,000 high explosive grenades, and over 1.5 million rounds of ammunition.

In addition," the international body states, "South Africa provided 7.62mm SS-77 machine guns, as well as heavier 12.7 mm Browning machine guns, and over one million rounds of ammunition. South Africa also sold seventy hand-held 40mm MGL grenade launchers with ten thousand grenades, and one hundred 60mm M1 mortars. This purchase also includes 10,000 M26 fragmentation grenades."

These revelations about past deals between Kigali and Pretoria could not have come at a worse time for the South African government and its arms industry. Armscor and Denel, the two state-owned giants which together constitute the backbone of South Africa's arms industry, have been relentlessly lobbying their government to get President Nelson Mandela's seal of approval for boosting their sales.

The report comes at a time when the international community is reeling under the shock-wave of ghastly death and destruction left behind by the Rwandan government's army and militia before being overwhelmed by Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) forces.

Consequently, many wellwishers of post-apartheid South Africa are greatly disturbed by the current tide of events in Pretoria in respect to the state's future policies on the arms trade.

We believe South Africa should be cautious in its approach to the expansion of its arms sales, especially in Africa," says Steve Goose, the Washington director of AWP. "First and foremost," he adds, "it (South Africa) should be sensitive to the effect its action could have on human rights. We hope that Nelson Mandela, who has devoted his life to freedom and human rights, will not turn his back on these (causes)."

Surely President Mandela is not to blame for the past deals between the previous racist South African regimes and Rwanda. Even so, the sharp international reaction sparked by the AWP report could well prove embarrassing for the veteran freedom fighter, who has apparently given in to the arms industry lobby in his country. In fact, Rwanda is not the only known African entity which received weapons from racist South Africa at one time or another.

Algerian-born Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun, a former U.N. special representative in Somalia before resigning in October 1992, says, "We have to remember that apartheid South Africa used to supply arms to RENAMO in Mozambique and UNITA in Angola.

Such involvement had led to ghastly bloodshed and devastation in those two countries. There were also other groups who were being supported indirectly through third parties," adds the former assistant secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

Apartheid South Africa's support to organizations like RENAMO and UNITA, which were at loggerheads with their respective governments, was part of a wider right-wing Western effort to hamstring any independent movement by an African government.

Although things have substantially changed in the international scene since the demise of the former USSR, the Cold War era psychology is still very much alive in some African quarters. Hence, security-minded Africans would like to see a militarily strong South Africa.

Some people, including persons from the region, have suggested the idea of South Africa as an arms supplier for Black Africa. However, there are several snags in this idea," Siemon Wezeman of the Arms Transfer Project (ATP) observes. ATP is run by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The people Wezeman is referring to argue that the current instability in Africa and the presence of now dormant but potentially dangerous terrorist and secessionist forces in post-apart-heid South Africa justifies stronger military production in the country. This contention is not without its merits.

Now that South Africa, one of the three regional powers in the contient, has joined the Organization of African Unity (OAU), it is expected to play no lesser role than Nigeria does in peacekeeping and other important military and diplomatic activities across the continent.

But does this justify the promotion of South African arms sales in the world marketplace? Ambassador Sahnoun does not think so. A member of the international advisory committee of AWP, Sahnoun stresses "I don't think South Africa should promote its arms sales industry. We are criticizing the developed world for doing so. Now, developing countries should not make the same mistake."

His pleas notwithstanding, South Africa already has a foothold in the world arms marketplace. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, four Arab, two Asian, and two Latin American countries were South Africa's major conventional weapons recipients over the past 10 years. These countries include Chile, Iraq, Morocco, Peru, Qatar, Singapore, Sri Lanka and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In the course of the period, Iraq received from Pretoria 200 G-5 towed 155 mm guns-worth $400 million. And, Qatar purchased 12 guns of the same type, while the UAE ordered 78 of the more sophisticated, self-propelled G-6 155m guns. Moreover, Morocco boosted its armed forces with 250 Eland-60 and Eland-90 South African-made armored cars.

Sri Lanka is yet another country which was attracted by military vehicles from the former pariah state, getting a total of 156 armored personnel carriers of various vintages.

Meanwhile, Peru remains the only country on the list which has received war planes. During the period under discussion, the Latin American state acquired five Canberra B-I-12 bombers for its air force.

South African arms seem to have also reached the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. In 1991, five Ugandan pilots were suspended by their government for allegedly hauling Croatia-bound arms from Bophuthatswana.

A reliable African diplomatic source, who does not want to be identified, says Morocco used the weapons received from South Africa in its war against the Sharawe people. This numerically small people are repelling-under the leadership of Polisario-a persistent Moroccan drive to annex their land. Morocco launched its bid to take the phosphate-rich former Spanish Sahara before Madrid decided in 1976 to terminate its 108-year-long rule of the area without determining its legal status.

In addition to Morocco, Sudan and Zaire are also known to have been using South African-made weapons to crush resistance movements in their own countries.

Despite this background, pundits don't hold that a significant part of South Africa's modern weapons will fall into African hands.

Andrew Duncan of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says any South African bid to sell more modern weapons "will not make Africa any worse." He explains, "It is unlikely that any African country will [be able to] afford to buy them. After all, there are many people across the world who are selling similar systems at cheaper prices."

Elaborating Duncan's point, Wezeman explains, "The promises made after the war against Iraq seem to have been forgotten ... (and) companies (are) trying to compete with governments who try to get rid of enormous amounts of surplus weapons because of the reduction of forces in Europe ...."

Noting the ongoing fratricide in Africa, he stresses, "Selling arms to many African countries might be like walking in a mine field. For a country trying to put up an extremely decent facade (and it is clear that South Africa does not want to be seen as an indiscriminate merchant of death), selling arms to those countries quickly leads to destruction of that image."

While the pundits' views are basically right, they are academic in the current African context. In fact, most African countries don't need sophisticated weapons to repress and murder their people. Such regimes can make do with small arms like machineguns, mortars, bazookas and ordinary assault guns. The Rwandan government has not used sophisticated weapons to wipe out a quarter of a million human beings in a matter of weeks. It employed small arms, a good part of which came from South Africa.

Pretoria has been preparing itself for grabbing a bigger share of the international arms trade since 1992, after the sales of weapons in the world nose-dived. Prior to that, Armscor controlled all aspects of the arms industry in Apartheid South Africa. But, after a severe recession hit the world industry, the giant company was restructured.

The impact of the recession was so bad for Armscor that the company's revenue dropped from $710 million to only $90 million by 1991. It also lost 38 percent of its employees whose number sharply tumbled from 26,000 to 16,000. As a result, all of its arms producing industries were transferred to the Denel corporation which was then established.

This does not sum up the story of the dangers inherent in expanding South Africa's arms industry. There will still be more ominous questions which would be staring the international community in the face if the idea gets off the ground. For example, what if an expansionist regime or one with the tendency of imposing its wishes on neighboring states takes power in Pretoria after Mandela disappears from the political scene?

The advent of this eventuality will be a classic case of history repeating itself because South Africa could once again become a drastically destabilizing factor in the continent. That is why President Mandela should adopt a policy which, while entrenching his country's security, could also inspire confidence in the world that South Africa will be an anchor of peace in Africa. Certainly, such policy can't take shape if President Mandela fails to resist the economic incentives being dangled in front of his face by the arms industry.

Whether or not the man will meet the challenge and reverse his country's position remains to be seen. For the time being, though, Armscor and Denel are steaming ahead at a full speed in order to get their way.

Mohamed Urdoh is a Toronto-based journalist from Somalia.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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