From weapons to ventilators: time for Denel to do some socially useful work

From weapons to ventilators: time for Denel to do some socially useful work
A patient is on a ventilator at the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the South Pest Central Hospital in Budapest, Hungary, 08 April 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/TAMAS KOVACS) / A medical ventilator by the company Draeger at the Vivantes Humboldt Hospital in Berlin, Germany, 26 March 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN)

Crises have a remarkable way of focussing the collective mind on what really matters. Denel should have branched out into socially useful work a long time ago.

Earlier this month, South Africa’s parastatal arms manufacturer, Denel, announced that it would begin to manufacture ventilators in partnership with other entities, to assist in the fight against Covid-19. Countries are battling with major shortages of medical equipment, and South Africa has the additional challenge of a declining Rand. 

So it stands to reason that domestic manufacturing capacity should be put to use in the fight. The parastatal has also floated the idea of turning Casspirs into ambulances and producing sanitisers. 

Crises have a remarkable way of focussing the collective mind on what really matters. Denel should have branched out into socially useful work a long time ago. Markets for conventional arms are shrinking around the world, leading to more arms manufacturers focussing on the same market: the Middle East. 

Denel has set its sights on marketing its wares to corrupt and repressive Gulf states as its target market, with Saudi Arabia at the helm. It should not be allowed to continue with its plans, as it will be feeding the disastrous instability in the region and beyond. 

As its finances flounder and job losses loom, it has become clear that Denel has reached its sell-by date. But what happens to Denel beyond the manufacture of war toys? Its current turnaround strategy is underwhelming. 

Major arms manufacturers such as the US and the UK are also facing shrinking markets for conventional arms. Yet, they continue to cling obstinately to old growth paths of militarism, financialisation and automation. They have even been willing to resort to military action if their global supremacy is threatened, irrespective of how unsustainable these measures are. 

Many countries have severe shortages of the kinds of scientists and engineers involved in defence manufacturing, South Africa included. Companies in the thrall of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ are automating more productive functions, leading to the massive destruction of jobs. At the same time, the globe is experiencing an unprecedented ecological crisis. 

Yet, economic production remains doggedly skewed towards market demands rather than broader social needs. If there is one positive thing to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that countries are being forced to rethink what forms of production are really needed to sustain life. 

Denel’s ideas are not new. In fact, for many decades, the anti-war and trade union movements have called for the transformation of arms manufacturing into socially responsible, useful and necessary work. 

One of the most inspiring legacies of the labour movement was a plan developed by a group of workers in the UK company Lucas Aerospace, who were facing imminent retrenchment in the 1970s. The company produced technical products for the civilian market, as well as weapons for the defence industry. 

As highly skilled scientists and engineers, they used this threat to their livelihoods to reimagine their work and their contributions to society more generally. The workers lamented what they referred to as the ‘dehumanisation of science and technology’, not necessarily because of the misbehaviour of scientists and technologists, but because society misused their skills. 

The Lucas workers also expressed concern about the de-skilling of their jobs, as the increasingly popular principles of scientific management atomised them into separate production units, overseen by managers who left little room for discretion, much less creative problem-solving. As more workers felt completely oppressed by their working environment, they lost interest and disengaged from the world of work. 

They also recognised that the shift from human intelligence to machine intelligence was exacerbating the problem. They argued that society has the capacity, and in fact the duty, to shape the trajectory of technological innovation, and governments should not allow people to be lulled into believing that these innovations occurred autonomously of society. 

According to the workers:

There is something seriously wrong about a society which can produce a level of technology to design and build [the] Concorde, but cannot provide enough simple urban heating systems to protect the old age pensioners who are dying each year from hypothermia. …[Further] it is clear that there is now deep rooted cynicism amongst wide sections of the public about the idea, carefully nurtured by the media, that advanced science and technology will solve all our material problems.

So, the workers began a shopfloor-led discussion to transform their work from military/industrial production into socially useful work. However, they recognised the dangers of planning for their shop floor only, as the hostile environment would most likely impinge on them and scupper their plans. So, they felt it necessary to link their plans to a wider industrial strategy that promoted economic diversification of areas dependent on arms manufacturers. 

The workers were decades ahead of their time, and perhaps even foresaw the current ecological crisis, by arguing for the need for a just transition from arms manufacturing into socially useful work, especially renewable energy. In other words, they argued for the need to move from destructive to constructive work.

The Lucas workers assessed their existing product range and workplace skills and drafted an alternative corporate plan, dubbed the Lucas Plan. They did so by collecting ideas from the shopfloor, and came up with 150 alternative products. 

These products included scaling back on military submarine production and focussing on producing submersible vehicles for marine agriculture, and braking systems linked to velocity sensing devices to address the inadequacies in braking systems in widespread use in public transportation. 

In the medical sector, they proposed producing kidney dialysis machines. In the energy sector, they intended to make heat pumps and wind turbines. They even grappled with alternative energy storage solutions, recognising that batteries of the time placed limits on any ambitions to transition to green energy. They proposed using lessons learnt in building batteries for defence ground support to offer hybrid alternatives to conventional battery production, which could be used in combined rail/road vehicles. 

Although the Lucas plan was never implemented, it has continued to inspire activists to this day. The UK-based Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has used the plan as a touchstone to develop detailed proposals for shifting defence manufacturing to green products. 

According to CAAT, it is entirely feasible to shift employment in large scale arms manufacturing to the renewable energy sector, and would go some way to freeing up scarce skills in the science, technology, maths and engineering fields. 

Focussing specifically on offshore wind energy, they have argued that the UK government could contribute to global security by demilitarising its foreign policy and promoting sustainable, low carbon and planet-saving energy sources. 

These proposals could well have application beyond the UK, including in southern Africa, where South Africa dominates the local defence industry. 

Denel is beset with financial problems. While some problems relate to the parastatal becoming embroiled in state capture, some are more deep-rooted and include unprofitable sales and loss-making contracts, and rising costs coupled with declining revenues. 

Their turnaround strategy includes plans to strengthen corporate governance, reduce internal costs, unbundle non-core functions and focus on core functions. It also intends to explore diversification into related areas, find new markets for its niche products, and possibly take on a private equity partner. 

However, the parastatal’s reported diversification plans appear to be limited to security, cyber-technology and advanced software solutions, and providing more services to the police, suggesting that it was also considering the markets for dual-use technologies. 

Many conventional arms manufacturers are, in fact, moving into dual-use production, including spyware, as it allows them to sell not only to defence departments, but to police and intelligence agencies also. This is something South Africa does not want to do, as it will contribute to a globally destabilising cyber-arms race, and existing export controls remain inadequate. 

Weapons-grade spyware can be (and has been) abused to target dissidents and others who are considered politically inconvenient. So serious is the problem that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, called for an immediate moratorium on the global sale and transfer of the tools of the private surveillance industry until rigorous human rights safeguards are put in place.

As the parastatal dispenses with what it has identified as non-core parts of the business, job losses remain a looming threat, particularly in aerostructures manufacturing. All of these factors mean that the parastatal is ripe for conversion to a company that provides socially useful goods. 

It is necessary and important for an arms manufacturer to repurpose itself to produce socially useful goods during a national crisis. But this commitment to thinking outside the bomb mustn’t be abandoned once the crisis subsides. DM

Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television, School of Communication, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg. She is author of ‘Stopping the Spies: Constructing and Resisting the Surveillance State in South Africa’, published by Wits University Press in 2018. 


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