South Africa

Jumping the gun(s): The Hawks, the CATS and the angry arms dealer

By De Wet Potgieter 18 December 2012

A “small army” of heavily armed members of the police’s tactical response unit – the notorious Amaberets – recently raided the house and offices of controversial weapon dealer Johan Erasmus, headed by the Hawks, members of the government’s Crime Against the State (CATS) unit and a top official from Minister Jeff Radebe’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC). This time, they turned up only a container of gun oil. Erasmus has cried foul, but the NCACC is sticking to its guns – literally. By DE WET POTGIETER.

Erasmus, an international dealer in weapons of war (including weapons of mass destruction) does not mince his words when he talks about the dirty tricks of his trade. He believes the latest raid was staged in order to destabilise his business, blaming Armscor officials for attempting to steal his prospects and secure better contracts for themselves at arms factories in China.

He also fingered several top ANC members, including military and police generals, as being part of an anti-Zuma faction; and labelled a controversial former top Armscor official, who was involved in arms smuggling during the Apartheid years, as a major figure in a rival arms procurement company. (This same arms dealer played a major role in the financial affairs of the notorious Civil Cooperation Bureau [CCB] which acted as a deep cover international hit squad for the Apartheid regime in the late 80s and early 90s.)

Reacting to claims that the weapons of war seized from him earlier this year were due to be used in a Boeremag coup, Erasmus says “this paranoia about a so-called Khaki Gevaar is nothing other than a smokescreen by people at NCACC and CATS”, running a vendetta against him. 

His woes began earier this year, when two consignments of new-generation RPG missiles and Gatling mini machine guns from Bulgaria – which are regarded as weapons of mass destruction – were seized as a potential national threat because they were suspected as possible arms in a Boeremag coup. Now, those seized arms have been transferred to a less secure storage unit, a move Erasmus has questioned, considering they were ostensibly seized for reasons of national security.

Last week, Erasmus contacted the police and the Hawks to find out whether all his RPGs were still safe and accounted for, since the police had transferred the consignments from the extremely secure SANDF bunkers (at 91 Ammunition Depot near Mookgophong in Limpopo) to the less secure bunkers of the police explosives unit near Brits. The Gatling machine guns, meanwhile, are stored at Special Forces bunkers in Wallmansthal – all of which concerns Erasmus, given the timing of the move.

The consignment includes over 40 rockets and two launchers, as well as about 14 disposable units. The weapons are not arms that one wants to go missing: new-generation RPGs, with an effective range of 2,000m, are proximity weapons that only need to explode in the vicinity of a target to unleash the most horrific thermobaric reaction. “Such an explosion sucks the victims’ lungs out through their mouths and they die a painful death,” as Erasmus describes the prolonged blast waves from the missiles. 

The timing would be catastrophic if the weapons’ location could not be ascertained. “If somebody put their hands on them and use it in a place like Mangaung it will be a major disaster,” Erasmus says. [Four right-wing extremists were arrested for suspected terrorism on Sunday. While the police orginally believed that the group’s members wanted to launch an attack in order to disrupt the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung, no connection has been established to the abovementioned Boeremag coup. – Ed]

Officials, however, are adamant that no such security risk exists. “I have been informed by the SAPS that the RPGs are in safe storage in Brits, and until proven to the contrary I must believe them,” says Erasmus.

Vanessa du Toit, director of the NCACC, declined to comment and referred all questions to Radebe’s office. His spokesperson, Mthunzi Mhaga, also refused to comment and said the issue was a matter for the police. 

Neither the SAPS nor the SANDF responded to lists of written questions from the Daily Maverick. 

Photo: Johan Erasmus held a demonstration with a Gatling machine gun for Special Forces and other arms of the military at Wallmansthal in December 2011. 

The NCACC, however, seems fairly certain that they are acting on motivations other than a personal vendetta. According to the NCACC search warrant, they had grounds to believe that Erasmus was trading in controlled items in contravention with the National Conventional Arms Control Act.

The search warrant listed the things they were looking for as:

• All parts belonging to the Dillon Gatling gun[s] imported in November last year;

• RPG style projectiles;

• Disposable hand-held rocket launchers;

• 30mm cannon shells;

• Landmines;

• Computers, documentation, CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, computer passwords, data security devices, cell phones and scores of other office data;

• All documentation relating to transporting the Gatling gun[s] throughout the SADC region and the mounting of the machine gun on Bell helicopters;

• All documentation relating top communication Erasmus’ had with the defence attachés of Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

From the search warrant, it is apparent that the South African authorities are concerned about possible business deals Erasmus may have had with the Zimbabwean air force, its officials and “other components of the Zimbabwean government or its agents”. 

In March this year, Erasmus asked the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria for an interdict against the military when a container of his weapons was seized in what could only be described as a comedy of errors. Members of the Hawks attached to CATS and the military police swooped on the Special Forces military base at Wallmansthal and attached the armament, which is worth more than R15 million, without a search warrant on the pretext of concerns of national security. The raid was launched on the strength of information from a non-commissioned member of defence intelligence.

While Erasmus succeeded in securing an urgent interim high court order preventing the destruction or disposal of his weaponry, the government withdrew their warrants for seizure of the weapons instead informed him (Erasmus) that his import permit had expired. 

“Of course it [had] expired, because they seized my guns and missiles and played for time to suit them,” claims Erasmus.

He held a demonstration with a Gatling machine gun for Special Forces and other arms of the military at Wallmansthal in December 2011. “The Gatling gun was on Armscor’s wish list for the past 20 years, but they could never manage to clinch a deal because the Americans are very sensitive about such a powerful weapon of mass destruction,” says Erasmus. “I then signed a deal with the Bulgarians in 2010 for the Gatling mini-gun and new-era super high-tech propelled grenades (RPGs). The Gatling gun fires 150 rounds per second, meaning that it pushes 3,000 rounds per minute through its multiple barrels.”

With the seizure of his Gatlings, RPGs and Kalashnikov PKMs, Erasmus says he was robbed of the opportunity to put his arsenal through its paces ahead of the anticipated military procurement orders to the value of between R3 billion and R5 billion for the next three years.

So far, however, there has been little sympathy from the authorities for his claims. And whatever motivated the Hawks, the CATS and the NCACC to carry out the seizure, the chances are their first concern would not have been his loss of income. DM

Main photo: Johan Erasmus held a demonstration with a Gatling machine gun for Special Forces and other arms of the military at Wallmansthal in December 2011. 

Gallery

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