Daily Maverick

Where are KwaZulu-Natal’s weapons of war?

Photo by Brian.Ch via Flickr

In a province where intimidation and fear of violent crime are widespread, war talk by supporters of the Zulu king over suggestions that the Ingonyama Trust be scrapped, and the discovery of several undetonated explosive devices, there are increased concerns about personal safety. Threats of war, and the planting of explosive devices, raise questions about access to weaponry.

Research in the early 2000s showed that dozens of caches of weapons in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s and 1990s had never been accounted for. Among these caches were consignments of weapons which had been part of the arsenal of the notorious Vlakplaas security police hit squad base, and their removal to KZN had been organised by former Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock in late 1993. These consignments have been described as “enough weapons to start a civil war”.

Where are these weapons, and why has there never been any proper investigation about their whereabouts, and prosecution of those responsible for the delivery?

According to the TRC, six 10-ton KwaZulu-Natal government trucks were used to transport the estimated 70 tons of weapons to a complex at Ulundi where security policeman and then IFP representative Phillip Powell lived, where they were hidden before being moved elsewhere.

These weapons included over a thousand hand grenades, almost three thousand rifle grenades, 200 shrapnel mines, thousands of AK47 and rifle rounds, anti-tank mines, and anti-personnel mines, RPG rockets and rocket launchers and over 500kg of explosives. There were plans to acquire further weapons from the apartheid government armoury, but it is not known if they ever materialised.

The context in which these weapons were acquired was one of greatly intensified violence in the province which, by April 1994, had threatened to erupt into civil war if the demands of the IFP and its ultraconservative allies for more devolution of powers to regions were not met. The threats of escalated violence led to some concessions being made by the main negotiating partners (coincidentally, it was in this context that the Ingonyama Trust Act was passed and, because KwaZulu-Natal was a “self-governing’ homeland, approved by then President FW de Klerk).

Investigations by the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) revealed Phillip Powell was conducting paramilitary training at the Mlaba camp, near Mahlabatini, which was stopped after a visit to the camp by members of the task group set up by the TEC. The large quantity of weapons discovered there may have included some from Vlakplaas (but there were also many other police issue weapons around then).

Training in warfare techniques was alleged to have included the construction of home-made bombs and the sabotaging of vehicles. According to the TEC report, the training and weaponry may have provided elements within the IFP and KwaZulu government with the capacity for large-scale insurrection. However, following the 11th-hour agreement by the IFP to participate in elections, and with the post-April 1994 emphasis on reconciliation, no prosecutions took place.

Shortly before South Africa’s second democratic elections in 1999, in a context of widespread violence (there were around 4,000 deaths between May 1994 and the end of 1998), and allegations of continued paramilitary training, a team of investigators from the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) unearthed a large cache of weapons at a bunker at Nquthu, northern KZN.

There were unsubstantiated reports that Phillip Powell had provided information about the weapons. Despite a controlled explosion being used to destroy the cache it was estimated that there were still around 64 tons of the Vlakplaas weapons unaccounted for. While there was talk of Powell being tried for treason, and reports of an arrest warrant having been issued, he left the country in the early 2000s. The then head of Scorpions, Bulelani Ngcuka, referred to Powell as a “scapegoat” and said in 2001 he wanted to find other conspirators behind the acquisition of the weapons.

Seventeen years later there is no evidence that any effort has been made to find the “other conspirators”, even although the names of people other than Powell who probably have information are known.

The failure of the democratic government to pursue the recovery of all these weapons seems nothing short of criminal, given the threat they pose to human lives. Given the current volatile state of KZN the recovery of all these caches, or whatever remains of them, calls for the immediate deployment of a team of police of proven competence, including ballistic experts, from outside of the province, to conduct thorough investigations into the unaccounted for arsenals. The public needs reassurance that these weapons cannot be retrieved to wage war. DM

Selected references :

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