A whinge on “arms” exports


There is a good case to be made that selling defence materiel to the Vatican – a independent government – amounts to selling arms to a repressive state.

There is so many human rights, good governance and other issues related of the Catholic Church that selling them paperclips could be an offence under the National Conventional Arms Control Act 41 of 2002, as amended.

So, if one arguably cannot deal with even the Pope, who can one sell to without living in fear of headlines such as those seen this week? I ask this in light of the universally negative media reports on South Africa’s exports for 2010 since the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) tabled the figures in Parliament:

Local news reports:

International reports:

Why this uniform negativity and scorn? At the risk of over-intellectualising and engaging in (some) psycho-babble, I suppose most journalists like to think of themselves as “progressive defenders of the underdog. The voice of the voiceless”, etcetera. This can translate into an ideological, almost instinctive; dislike of big business, government – indeed of all authority, temporal and pastoral. The military, as the custodian of organised violence on behalf of the state, with its emphasis on discipline, security and patriotism, is a strange, suspicious, character. The defence industry even more so. Urban legends thrive. Who has not heard of the “mystery man of Europe”, David Lloyd George’s name for Basil Zaharoff (1849-1936), that “most unscrupulous member of an unscrupulous trade”1? Is the “arms trade” and corruption not synonymous?

Abusing the media is, of course, a popular sport. But government and industry are not blameless. On the part of industry, where is the “thought leadership”, the public education? On the part of the NCACC, why the inaccurate and superficial reports and the continued attempts at secrecy? Why are we seeking – and succeeding – in being our own worst enemies?

Were any of the sales “against laws banning sales to repressive states” as avered in at least one report? It is a good question. To my knowledge, there is only one law, NCAC Act, governing defence exports, so using the plural could be “artistic licence”. Further, neither the preamble of the act or Section 15, that sets out the guiding principles and criteria, contain the word “ban” or “prohibited”. The preamble states SA “will not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism,” but this does not, for better or worse, amount to a prohibition.

15. When considering applications contemplated in section 14 the Committee must

(a) assess each application case-by-case basis;

(b) safeguard the national security interests of the Republic and those of its allies;

(c) avoid contributing to internal repression, including the systematic violation or suppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms;

(d) avoid transfers of controlled items to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms;

(e) avoid transfers of controlled items that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability;

(f) adhere to international law, norms and practices and the international obligations and commitments of the Republic, including United Nations Security Council arms embargoes;

(g) take account of calls for reduced military expenditure in the interests of development and human security;

(h) avoid contributing to terrorism and crime;

(i) consider the conventional arms control systems of the recipient country and its record of compliance with end-user certificate undertakings, and avoid the export of conventional arms to a government that has violated an end-user certificate undertaking;

(j) take into account the inherent right of individual and collective self-defence of all sovereign countries in terms of the United Nations Charter; and

(k) avoid the export of controlled items that may be used for purposes other than the legitimate defence and security needs of the government of the country of import.

As can be seen, the law instructs the NCACC to “avoid” certain actions and to “adhere” to others, but again, this is not a ban or a prohibition, let alone an offence. Perhaps it should be. The law, as currently written, also does not put any priority on these 11 considerations, supporting the contention of the committee that “in making decisions the NCACC considers in aggregate, all principles reflected in our legislation. No single principle is considered in isolation of the others.” This seems legally correct. Indeed, giving any of these priority over the others may be a breach of law.

The facts, such as they are, are reported elsewhere on these pages. In summary, the NCACC approved 3536 export permits worth R8.329 billion to 83 countries in 2010. This was up from R7.812 billion in 2009 and R5.898 billion in 2008. Recipient states range from Algeria to Zambia but also include Austria, Ireland and New Zealand. In addition, the august body approved 345 contracting permits worth R27.719 billion to 83 countries.

But the facts are not as straightforward as it may seem. There is a great deal of terminological inexactitude. Firstly, who exactly knows how the permit system work? Even as a specialist writer, I have many questions, starting with the meaning of “marketing” and “export” permits. To be sure, I have a working knowledge of the meanings, but is that good enough? Then, what do the various categories mean? At one time there were five, “A” to “E”. The last ring-fenced “not-for-sale items … that are not allowed to be sold, such as anti-personnel landmines.” But since then, the meanings have seemingly changed and category “E” is no longer “not for sale.” The 2009 and 2010 figures also contain a category “G”. I have no idea what that might be nor whether there are categories “F” and “H”.

The Institute for Security Studies in a submission to Parliament in 2008 called the categories “broad and imprecise in nature”, making it ‘almost impossible for the public to ascertain the types and amount of specific arms that have been exported.” The examples cited are not always helpful either, expect, perhaps in spreading alarm. “Category A”, for example, is defined as “Sensitive, Major Significant Equipment (SMSE) which comprises of conventional implements of war that could cause heavy personnel casualties and/or damage and destruction to material, structures, objects and facilities. Examples are tanks, combat aircraft, large calibre artillery systems, attack helicopters, warships and armoured fighting vehicles.”

The NCACC export figures are meant to promote “transparency” and “confidence” in what everyone agrees is a sensitive trade. It remains disappointing then that the NCACC figures to Parliament contains just a category, an amount and a cryptic reference as to whether the “export” is a sale, test, repair, demonstration, exhibition or “two or more of the above”. To make any sense of the NCACC data to Parliament requires it to be read with data the NCACC provides to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. This is frustrating for several reasons, including the time delay (the NCACC report to Parliament for 2009 was tabled in April 2010, but the UN data for the same year only in December 2010) and the fact that South Africa only declares a portion of its exports to the UN – mostly armoured vehicles. “Smaller” exports, such as radios and radars are not declared. So, its not exactly comparing apples with apples.

Compare an extract from the NCACC’s April 2010 report to Parliament for 2009 with the NCACC’s December 2010 report to the UN:

Extract: NCACC report to Parliament for 2009



Value (ZAR)









38 989 350

106 781 509

1 101 737

4 876 520

151 749 116

Sales, tests, demonstrations

Sales, tests, demonstrations,



Sales, tests, demonstrations


Extract: NCACC report to the United Nations for 2009


Final importer

Number of items


Comment by SA govt



1. Battle tanks



1 x Comet cruiser tank

1 x Sherman medium tank

3 x Stuart light tanks

Armour Museum (donation)

2. Armoured combat vehicles



10 x Marauder MRAP



One can see from the UN report 10 Marauder armoured vehicles were sold and/or exported. But is it a category “A” or “C” export? An MRAP (mine resistant armour protected vehicle) is indeed an armoured vehicle but in its raw form can be described as “non-sensitive equipment which comprises all support equipment usually employed in direct support of combat operations that have no inherent capability to kill or destruct, although, if employed in conjunction with [Category A equipment], they could have multiple effect. Examples are radars, meteorological stations, radio equipment, support vehicles and aircraft and recovery equipment.” Which is it?

This brings me to another question: Are the terms “arms”, “weapons” and “defence equipment” interchangeable? The media articles suggest they are, all refer to “arms”. But is a MRAP an “arm” or even a weapon, in the way an assault rifle, grenade, spear, club or stone is? I don’t think so. Therefore SA’s “arms” exports is substantially less than its defence exports, something that should be highlighted.

Another issue that needs illumination is that of “sales”versus export permits. Of the latter, there was R8.329 billion in 2010 and R7.812 billion in 2009, including R151.7 million to Azerbaijan. How much of that was actual sales? The R1.1 million under Category E is clearly sales. But the rest? If a vehicle, mortar system or radio is exported to Azerbaijan for an exhibition or a test, evaluation, or the like,is it a real export? My understanding is that equipment must be returned after these. So, while the value of these reflect in the figures (and one can ask if they should), these are hardly real exports. The figures really should discriminate these.

Then there is the issue of secrecy. Actions speak louder than words. The NCACC this month again attempted to classify the figures “confidential” and have it tabled in a closed session of the Joint Standing Committee of Defence. Hardly the actions of democrats committee to “openness” and “transparency”. The committee will no doubt have some clever weasel-words to explain why its 2008 report was only tabled in September 2009, despite the law at the time setting the deadline of March 31. It will no doubt have some sophistry to hand to explain away why the 2003 and 2004 figures were only tabled in Parliament in August 2005 and made public in 2007. The 2005, 2006 and 2007 reports were apparently tabled in Parliament but are not available to the public because (surprise!!) they were classified by the NCACC. The 2008 report made it into the public domain despite the NCACC – who had classified it “confidential”.


Part of the “explanation” for the secrecy is commercial confidentiality. This is difficult to believe in connection with the bland information (and I use the term very loosely) provided to Parliament. Perhaps the attempts at secrecy is in the hope that it could thwart media coverage and public scrutiny (scrutiny by the public, not just a few “representatives” of the public, sworn to secrecy, behind closed doors). That is unlikely. Secrecy tends to excite journalists to greater endeavours. And what about the UN data?

Indeed, what about the UN data? The extract above shows the export of tanks, as a donation, to Poland. Interesting then that this was a surprise to the museum concerned They know of no such export! Reminds of the husband who found his wife in bed with another man. Her response: “Who are you going to believe? Your wife or your lying eyes?” The same reports avers the export of two Ferret armoured cars to Senegal. The Ferret was built by Daimler from 1952 to 1971 and some were indeed acquired by South Africa. A number of these were upgraded for 44 Parachute Brigade in the 1980s and one is now a gateguard outside the regimental lines. Senegal may well have acquired two Ferrets, although I have my doubts. Another intriguing export was in 2007, the sale of six “RG23” vehicles to an unspecified international humanitarian organisation. Did they mean that or did they mean RG32? BAE Systems does not manufacture a “RG23”. A mistake or mis/disinformation?

You tell me…

Why do I care? Because accurate data is important and at the very least, there is a duty on the government to ensure what little it publishes is correct.

Also see:


1Roger Ford, Machine Gunner: Tales of the Grim Reaper, Pan Books, London, 1997, p40; also: wikipedia, Basil Zaharoff, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_Zaharoff