Despite trying, South Africa has not become a major arms exporter to the rest of Africa. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says the South African defence industry, along with government, has made attempts to position the country as a key supplier of arms to African countries.
“However, despite these efforts, South Africa has not become a significant arms exporter to sub-Saharan African states, and its arms exports to sub-Saharan African destinations do not account for a significant share of South African arms exports,” SIPRI says in a just-released report entitled South African arms supplies to sub-Saharan Africa.
The report, by SIPRI senior researcher Pieter Wezeman, estimates that South Africa exported major conventional weapons to 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and to the African Union (AU) in the period 2000–2009. In the same period the region accounted for 14% of South Africa’s total major arms exports, while sub-Saharan African countries (excluding South Africa) imported only 0.2% of their arms from South Africa. “Thus, South African exports to sub-Saharan Africa account for only a fraction of the region’s total arms imports,” Wezeman says. By contrast, far the largest importer of South African major arms was the United States, which accounted for 40% of South African defence exports during 2000–2009.
“In the mid-1990s some people within the new ANC-led government saw arms exports as a potential tool for foreign policy and the industry as an essential attribute of a strong sovereign state. They placed an emphasis on arms exports within Africa, in particular to states in southern Africa, an area perceived as South Africa’s natural sphere of influence. Politicians and government officials hoped that arms sales within Africa would provide political leverage, and they promoted arms sales
as a key to establishing regional security cooperation. Furthermore, they argued that African states would benefit from buying South African arms because it would lessen their dependence on non-African sources,” Wezeman writes. “However, countries in Africa proved apprehensive of strengthening South African dominance in the region and have been hesitant about procuring arms from South Africa.”
The report notes the limited size of the South African armed forces means that exports are
essential for sustaining the arms industry. In the period 2005–2007 exports reportedly accounted for roughly 40–50% of the total turnover of the South African defence industry according to local industry association figures. Wezeman says the industry has marketed itself by stressing that it is well placed to pursue smaller export orders and is “often able to offer solutions to non-aligned and non-NATO markets”, that its products have been “purpose-built for the rugged and challenging environment of Africa” and that South African companies are willing to offer complete packages
including weapons, training service and spare parts. But despite “such promotional efforts, during the period 2007–2009 the share of the total turnover that the South African arms industry derived from exports to African destinations was below 9%.
According to South African government figures, R34.5 billion (US$5 billion) worth of equipment was exported in that period. Of the total, R1.7 billion (US$241 million) or 4.9% was accounted for by exports to sub-Saharan African countries. State arsenal Denel, regarded as the largest arms-producing company in South Africa, reported that during 2009 only R50 million (US$6.7 million) of its total export revenue of R1.23 billion rand (US$165.8 million) came from sales to sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to new weapons, a combination of downsizing, restructuring and modernising of the South African armed forces in the past 20 years has resulted in a considerable number of weapons becoming surplus and being sold to export customers. “In particular, surplus wheeled armoured vehicles have been supplied to African countries together with a small number of surplus SANDF combat aircraft. In at least one case, surplus SANDF equipment has been sold to a foreign company and then resold to an African destination: in 1999, 120 Eland/AML armoured vehicles were sold
from SANDF surplus stocks to a company in Belgium, which upgraded the vehicles and resold approximately 82 of them to Chad in 2007–2008.”
He cautioned that equipment exported north into Africa were vulnerable to abuse. “A typical and widely criticised example was the delivery of small arms and other military equipment from South Africa to Rwandan Government security forces in 1992—weapons which were soon after
involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. On the other hand, weapons and military equipment can also contribute to stability, for example when they are supplied to peacekeeping forces,” Wezeman says.
The official South African arms export data shows that in the period 2000–2009 arms and military goods were exported to several sub-Saharan countries involved in armed conflict, including Chad in 2008–2009, Rwanda in 2004–2009, Sudan in 2007–2008 and Uganda in 2002–2009. “There have been several documented cases of the use of South African-supplied arms in human rights abuses in the period 2000–2009. Mamba armoured personnel carriers supplied by a South African company in 2003 were used in September 2009 by Guinean police forces when forcefully dispersing a gathering of people related to those killed during anti-government demonstrations. Armoured vehicles supplied from South Africa were also used in the violent suppression of demonstrations in Uganda in 2006.
“Assessing the impact that these deliveries may have had on conflict in these recipient countries is not possible because it remains unclear what type of equipment was delivered to which end-user, and if and how it was used. For example, concerns could be raised that the delivery to Sudan in 2008 of R64 million (US$9 million) worth of items related to major weapons could be used by the Sudanese government in the conflict in Darfur. Concerns could also be raised that the R169 million (US$24 million) worth of military products supplied to Uganda in 2009 might be used in the war against the Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or in Ugandan military activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“However, it is also possible that the equipment could be essential for Ugandan peacekeepers involved in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).”
The South African Government does not usually publicly report information on its denials of arms export licences, but based on the available arms export data, South Africa appears to be willing to supply to most sub-Saharan African countries, except Zimbabwe and those under UN arms
embargo. “This assessment is strengthened by statements made by the NCACC chairman in reaction to the view that the South Africa had allowed the supply of arms to ‘dodgy’ countries, essentially stating that the sales were legitimate because none of the approved recipients were under UN embargo.”
Wezeman also notes several cases South African weapons have also been used for what can be seen as legitimate defence or contributions to efforts to prevent and end conflicts. “This is most clearly illustrated by cases in which weapons have been specifically supplied to actors participating in international peacekeeping operations. For example, AU peacekeeping forces in Darfur received up to 138 armoured vehicles supplied by South African companies in the period 2005–2009. Most of these were paid for by Canada and the USA. In another example, a South African company was contracted in 2009 to supply 8 tonnes of ammunition to UN peacekeeping missions in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. It has been argued that South African companies could play a greater role in providing African peacekeepers with adequate equipment and related support packages.
“However, there is currently no reason to assume that arms exports specifically for peacekeeping will make up the bulk of South African arms exports.” The SIPRI researcher welcomed government’s stance on small arms. These and light weapons (mortars, rocket launchers) are widely used in conflict and violence throughout Africa, he notes. “It is therefore significant that in February 1999 the South African Government decided to destroy all state-held redundant semi-automatic and automatic weapons of calibre 12.7mm or smaller. This decision was taken in accordance with the 1997 report of the United Nations Secretary-General on small arms, which recommended, among other things, that all states should consider destroying all surplus small arms. The destruction of more than 262 000 redundant SALW belonging to the SANDF commenced in July 2000.”
Wezeman concludes that to date, South Africa has not become the arms supplier to Africa that some South African politicians and the arms industry had hoped it would be. “Furthermore, arms supplies do not play a major role in South Africa’s politics of peace and security in Africa. Only occasionally does South Africa donate military equipment to African countries. Mediation, its role in the African Union and participation in peacekeeping operations are [instead] South Africa’s key instruments with regards to its efforts at shaping peace and security in Africa.”
Pic: The Ivema Gila MRAP, in service with seven African states.