Public Enterprises Minister called to explain Middle East arms sales

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Smoke is rising from another apparent fire demanding the attention of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, this time involving Denel associate company Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM).

He has been asked for details of South Africa’s alleged involvement in the ongoing Yemen humanitarian crisis by Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentarian Michele Clarke in her capacity as shadow deputy minister for Gordhan’s department.

She said South African arms companies, including RDM, profited by selling weapons to factions central in the humanitarian war in Yemen, aiding gross human rights violations in the country.

A number of South African weapons have turned up in Yemen’s civil war, Open Secrets has said in a new report. In its recently published document ‘Profiting From Misery – South Africa’s complicity in war crimes in Yemen’, Open Secrets said that several South African companies have ‘cashed in’ on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have led the campaign in Yemen.

“This report reveals that, since the war in Yemen broke out, South African arms companies like Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) have cashed in on the sale of weapons to some of the central parties to this conflict who may be guilty of gross human rights violations in Yemen,” the report states.

“South Africa’s regulators of the weapons trade are legally required to prevent the export of weapons that will contribute to human rights violations or worsen conflicts. In this case, they have completely failed to do so. Instead, the South African government has bowed to the interests of the arms industry and its profits, and the suffering of Yemenis has been ignored,” Open Secrets said.

It gave numerous examples of South African weapons that have ended up in the conflict-ridden country. “For example, on 5 July 2015, a Yemen TV channel broadcast footage of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, shot down in Yemen. It was believed the UAV belonged to and was operated by the armed forces of the UAE. The footage identified what was likely a Seeker II UAV, with an identification plate that read: ‘Made in South Africa: Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.” Denel has supplied a number of Seeker models to the United Arab Emirates over the years and in February the UAE ordered another system, for its Presidential Guard.

Open Secrets also fingers Denel division Denel Vehicle Systems, which in July 2016 announced that the first batch of RG31 mine-resistant armoured vehicles had been shipped to the UAE Armed Forces. In February 2019, Amnesty International published a report, When Arms Go Astray, which included a photograph, taken in Yemen, of a ‘120 mm mortar system mounted on a South African RG-31 armoured vehicle’. While the weapon was being used by a local militia, Amnesty noted that the ‘UAE was the only country to purchase this weapon system, and therefore must be the militia’s supplier’.

Open Secrets noted that the When Arms Go Astray report also included evidence of military convoys heading towards a battle in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah. Two of the vehicles in the convoy were identified as South African G6 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, which Denel has supplied to the UAE. These vehicles had already been seen in Yemen in 2015. A report by an American think tank with close ties to the US security establishment, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, indicated that a UAE task force had landed in Aden in August 2015 with battle tanks and vehicles, as well as ‘Denel G6 155 mm self-propelled howitzers [and] RG-31 Agrab 120mm mortar carriers’.

“These weapons have been used directly by their intended recipients – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and, on occasion, by their proxy forces, passed on in contravention of the required end-user certificate,” Open Secrets said. “Either way, the NCACC is explicitly tasked with ensuring that South Africa’s weapons exports are not used to contribute to human rights violations or exacerbate conflict, and it is failing.”

Open Secrets highlighted the fact that since the civil war broke out in Yemen in early 2015, South African arms companies have exported weapons worth R2.81 billion to Saudi Arabia, and weapons worth R4.74 billion to the UAE. These exports include mortars and mortar shells, artillery guns and shells, ammunition, armoured combat vehicles, and software for various types of electronic warfare. “Much of this materiel has likely been used as part of the Saudi and UAE offensive in Yemen, with devastating consequences for the civilian population,” it said, but Open Secrets could not provide conclusive evidence of this in many instances.

For example, Open Secrets said that Rheinmetall Denel Munition may have been used in a specific attack where civilians were killed in the port city of Hodeidah, but added that no single piece of evidence is conclusive in this regard. “Making a 100 percent positive identification of explosive munitions is very difficult to do,” it said.

In a Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) meeting on 10 March discussing Denel’s annual report, SIU investigations and other matters, the ANC’s Mervyn Alexander Dirks asked Denel management about RDM’s involvement in Yemen as Denel is a 49% shareholder in RDM. Since 2014 Rheinmetall in Germany had supplied weapons worth billions of Rands to the war in Yemen, he said.

William Hlakoane, acting Group Chief Executive Officer, explained that Denel was a minority shareholder in RDM, therefore the partnership was that Denel provided ammunition that was part of the intellectual property that RDM bought from Denel. The issue of the weapons that were manufactured by RDM – Denel was not sure where those weapons were coming from. Denel was not sure whether they were coming from RDM in South Africa, or the RDM Holding Company in Germany and still needed to establish the facts, he said.

Clarke wants to know from Gordhan what agreement, if any, there is in place with South African defence industry companies, including RDM; what the value of these agreements is to the parties involved and what RDM’s profit from dealing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is.

“If there are deals in place, RDM and South Africa may be guilty of contributing to gross human rights violations in Yemen,” Clarke said.



Open Secrets believes that the evidence of the United Arab Emirates’ and Saudi Arabia’s commission of human rights abuses in Yemen “is sufficient to show that weapons exports from South Africa should have been prohibited by the NCACC.”