Swords into ploughshares – an integral part of the Mechem legacy


Denel maintains it has long left behind its history as a major supplier of apartheid South Africa’s weapons of war to being a key provider of infrastructure and services for African peacekeeping missions led by the African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN).
“Our business today is nothing like it was during the apartheid era” Ismail Dockrat, acting chief executive of Denel Land Systems (DLS), is reported by Denel Insights as saying. “Then the focus was on war but now it is on peace.”

Mechem, a subsidiary of DLS, spearheads demining activities in a number of former war zones across the continent.
“Our business model has changed totally and we are now the go-to people for other African countries addressing the legacies of civil war and conflict. Our focus now is almost entirely humanitarian and we use the skills and expertise gained over the years to leave a lasting legacy in countries recovering from war,” Dockrat said.

Even the Casspir – a dreaded trademark of the apartheid regime during the 1980s and early 1990s – has been retooled into a world-class weapon of peace used to spearhead mine detection activities across the continent, according to the Denel publication.

United Nations (UN) estimates indicate there are at least 110 million active mines scattered across the world, of which some 44 million are on the African continent.

Mechem is the only UN-accredited ERW (explosive remnants of war) clearance company in Africa. Its core function is the execution of cost effective ERW and battle area clearance services in post-conflict areas to create safer environments. Using retooled Casspirs and other methods, Mechem has cleared in excess of 200 000 000 square metres of land and 16 000 km of roads worldwide – mostly in Africa. It is currently conducting operations in nine African countries, of which six are in support of the UN and the AU.

As an example, Mechem has supported UN peacekeeping activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2003. It has had up to 90 personnel divided into five teams operating from Kisangani in the centre of the country. A typical team consists of demining experts travelling in mine-protected vehicles supported by Mechem trained sniffer dogs. Roads are swept on a regular basis with the majority of the time spent clearing identified minefields.
“It is a painstaking and dangerous operation,” Johan Coetzee, senior portfolio manager for operations at Mechem, said. “Modern technology and sniffer dogs can help detect the presence of mines – but in most instances lifting and disposal has to be done manually.”

In Southern Sudan, Mechem cleared more than five thousand kilometres of road and removed more than three thousand explosive devices prior to the referendum on independence in late 2010. Following the election of a new government a Mechem team remained in the country to continue demining activities.
“We’re now in a position where our expertise and track record enables us to not only clear mined areas – as we have done successfully in Mozambique – but we also prepare land for new development,” Dockrat said.

The work is not without risks and eight Denel staff members have lost their lives to date.
“The biggest impact we’re making is opening up communities in former war zones. After we’ve moved in, people can live and move freely.”