South Africa


National Conventional Arms Control Committee – handmaiden to human rights abuse?

South Africa's arms trade regulator has failed in its mandate to monitor the export of weapons to countries that, among other things, abuse human rights, or wage war against their own citizens. This begs the question, who will guard the guards themselves? 

Apartheid South Africa was steeped in secretive arms deals with clandestine transactions propping up the regime. The National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) was created at the cusp of democracy ostensibly as “guardians” who regulate the flow of weaponry across South Africa’s border. No longer would money and brutal geopolitics dictate who we sell weapons to. 

This was a significant undertaking for the democratic order – the world’s 10th largest arms exporter (in 1994), had a history of supplying weapons to countries such as Iraq and Iran during the bloody war of the 1980s, as well as to Rwanda.

But as we saw in Unaccountable 0004, arms companies like Rheinmetall Denel Munition have until very recently profited from arms sales that appear to be linked to murder and mayhem in Yemen. 

This is the account of a failed regulator which, despite some signs of progress, has over the past two decades acted as a handmaiden to controversial arms sales that are undeniably linked to human rights abuses.

The NCACC consists of ministers and deputy ministers, and has an undeniably critical role – it is effectively meant to prohibit the country from contributing to the violation of human rights and is meant to enforce the Conventional Arms Control Act.

This act is aimed at ensuring the country upholds international law and commitments, including United Nations Security Council arms embargoes, and does not transfer arms, which “are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts”.

Furthermore, when arms are exported or ownership transferred, the country set to receive the arms has to provide an undertaking that these will not be resold, re-exported, or transferred again without South Africa’s approval. This agreement needs to be reflected in an end-user certificate.

The law empowers the NCACC to conduct an inspection, or investigation, inside, or outside South Africa, into any conventional arms trade.

The watchdog has a volley of other requirements under the act, including that at the end of the first quarter of each year it presents to Parliament, and releases publicly, an annual report on its exports concluded over the preceding calendar year.

But since its inception, it stands accused of failing to thoroughly execute its expansive job. 

Established in 1995 under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, the NCACC’s inaugural chair was ANC politician Kader Asmal. Mandela had emphasised that, under democracy, foreign policy would be guided by human rights. But the NCACC then made many questionable decisions from the mid-1990s, authorising the sale of weapons to states engaged in internal conflict against their own people, or involved in conflict, such as Turkey, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia.

Asmal, in his biography Politics in my Blood: A Memoir, later admitted that “some ministers with close ties to the arms industry were pretty gung-ho about arms sales”. He claims to have found it difficult to control then defence minister Joe Modise, “who never once referred to the criteria laid down in the legislation”. Modise, who was implicated in corruption in the massive 1999 arms deal, was no stranger to shenanigans which have left deep scars on South Africa’s democracy.

In 2004, Sydney Mufamadi took over from Asmal as NCACC chair during the Thabo Mbeki presidency. The NCACC subsequently again found itself in the middle of controversy.

In June 2008, it emerged that, according to leaked figures dating back to 2004 and 2005, the NCACC had enabled private local companies to sell armaments totalling R3.3-million to Zimbabwe. 

News that the NCACC had played a role in helping Mugabe’s regime – which was cracking down on popular protests at the time – reflected poorly on both Mbeki and Mufamadi who were acting as “independent” mediators in Zimbabwe’s political crisis.

This hinted that they were perhaps not impartial in their respective roles in the mediation process and worse, possibly made South Africa indirectly complicit in conflict in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, a trend was established under Mufamadi of consistent late reporting to Parliament – a record of tardiness that has become standard practice.

The election of Jacob Zuma in 2009 heralded changes with the appointment of Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe to chair the NCACC. He, however, came under fire from opposition parties – the DA attacked the NCACC for being in “a crisis”.

“Many new permits have not been issued to authorise arms deals because of the long delay in appointing the new NCACC,” the party said.

While the DA may have been speaking to the interests of the arms manufacturing industry, it also pointed to “dodgy deals” pending authorisation involving Iran, Syria and Zimbabwe.

But Radebe hit back saying the NCACC had taken decisions it believed were above board. He admitted the restructuring of the NCACC, following the transition from one administration to the next, had taken time and negatively impacted on the defence sector, which he regretted. 

This signalled that human rights would remain the background of the NCACC’s agenda in the years that followed. 

In 2011, photographic evidence emerged of South African Ratel armoured infantry carriers deployed in Yemen. As a sale to Yemen had not been authorised by the NCACC, this suggested a breach of end-user certificates by the country which had bought the vehicles. Investigations into this were not further publicly reported on by the NCACC and appear to be inconclusive with the matter now seemingly swept under the carpet. 

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa in May 2019 has heralded the first signs of positive change under the guidance of a new NCACC chair, Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu. This time – at least – the source of ire is the arms companies whose free-for-all in supplying weapons to countries in crisis has, for now, been halted. 

Export authorisations were seemingly frozen shortly before the election and the industry was outraged. Then in early September 2019, Norbert Schulze, at the time the chief executive officer of South African-based arms manufacturing company Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), told Reuters that because of the export freeze, stocks had filled up and no more production could take place.

He also believed export holds had been placed on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which, if kept in place, would financially hurt his company. 

Surprisingly, late in 2019, the NCACC made local and international news when it emerged it was strictly enforcing export controls – this included a further provision to the end-user certificate regulation stating an importing country would not sell weapons to third parties.

The further provision was that South Africa may at any time inspect the relevant premises of an importing country.

But this hasn’t gone down well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE – they were unhappy with the provision relating to onsite inspections, apparently instead eyeing other markets from which to source their weapons.

The two Gulf states are aggressors in a civil war which has been raging in Yemen for more than five years causing mass civilian casualties and previously procured weapons from, among others, RDM.

Despite fear-mongering that the industry will be brought to its knees, the NCACC has remained firm.

Mthembu, in a letter seen by Reuters, stated: “The NCACC is aware of the possible loss of jobs occasioned by the inability to export in the time being. However, as your organisation would appreciate, compliance with regulations sometimes produces negative impact.”

But if the regulations now being strictly enforced are, as they appear to be, the same as those outlined in the Conventional Arms Control Act, why has the NCACC failed to implement these for many years and what should be the consequence for former chairperson Jeff Radebe and the MPs who appear to have looked the other way when he belatedly submitted his reports to Parliament? 

It seems that lucrative deals with dodgy client states have been camouflaged to protect the domestic arms manufacturers and some of their international partners (notably companies such as Rheinmetall). 

According to the NCACC’s 2018 annual report, in that year it authorised 776 export permits and channelled weapons to 66 countries.

The value of these exports was more than R4-billion.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE added South African-made bombs and rockets to their munitions stockpile – 21,175 to the former and 44,575 to the latter totalling about R362-million.

The NCACC’s 2019 annual report has not yet been made public, but it is clear that the Gulf states are extremely lucrative sources for South Africa and are likely to remain so, despite the consequence to human rights.

The NCACC has, over many years, failed to make the murky arms arena more transparent and reflective of the country’s commitment to human rights. The failure of the regulator – until recently – was never halted by the political elite who have shown little interest in the consequences of their actions outside of the country’s border. Instead, they pander to the interests of foreign powers and the owners of these arms companies.

To ensure that this “new dawn” at the NCACC is not short-lived, a thorough public enquiry into the many political and economic pressures that have contributed to this regulator’s failure must be interrogated. 

The public has the right to know why it dragged its feet in tightening export controls and why there were no measures in place to prevent the local industry’s heavy financial reliance on certain purchasing countries, thereby giving these countries excessive power over the industry.

The decision-makers must be held to account if they have enabled weapons produced on home soil to head to countries where horrific violence and human rights abuses have played out. DM

Open Secrets is a non-profit organisation which exposes and builds accountability for private-sector economic crimes through investigative research, advocacy and the law. Previous articles in the Unaccountable series are Unaccountable 00001: Dame Margaret Hodge MP – a very British apartheid profiteer; Unaccountable 00002: Liberty – Profit overPensioners; Unaccountable 00003: Dube Tshidi & The FSCA: CapturedRegulator?; and Unaccountable 00004: Rheinmetall Denel Munition: Murder and mayhem inYemen. Tip-offs for Open Secrets may be submitted here.


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