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South Africa going to the dogs – of war

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

The latest, leaked report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea fingers a number of South African companies operating in the security sector in Somalia, which the SA government is cheerfully ignoring – despite trying to position itself at the top of the African leadership ladder. And that should tell you something is seriously wrong.

Our plane had just ground to a halt on the runway at Mogadishu airport – after a hair-raisingly steep descent from the sea, all the better to avoid surface-to-air missiles or stray mortar rounds – when my wife pointed him out. “See that guy there? The one standing by the wing? He’s South African.”

I’m not sure how she knew, but she was right. Perhaps the Kobus Wiese haircut gave it away, coupled with his stiff military bearing; and the knowledge that, in Somalia, the chances are excellent that a white man in any kind of security role will be South African.

They seemed to be everywhere – manning the airport in Mogadishu, guarding NGO compounds in Hargeisa, and training militia forces in Puntland. This particular example had a typical backstory: at a loose end after Angola and a decade with Apartheid-era special forces, he’d found no place for his skills (or attitudes) in the new South Africa, drifting instead from war to war: Iraq, the DRC, Sierra Leone, and now Somalia. He became a gun for hire; a soldier of fortune; a dog of war. One of many that have given South Africans the dubious reputation of being some of the best and most reliable mercenaries in the world.

It came as no surprise, therefore, when the latest report from the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea – leaked to media in draft form – fingered a number of South African companies operating in the security sector in Somalia. Chief culprits were Australian African Global Investments (South Africa), the Pathfinder Corporation, Sterling Corporate Services and Saracen International. The report warned of violations of Security Council resolutions and suspected human rights abuses committed by these companies, as well as possible involvement in arms smuggling; it also reminded the South African government that South African law explicitly forbids any of its citizens from engaging in mercenary activity themselves or even training others as combatants in an armed conflict.

But South Africa, it seems, has been content to turn a blind eye to the whole issue. In the Daily Maverick today, my colleague Khadija Patel reports on other serious allegations made by the UN monitoring group against the South African government. Specifically, the government was condemned for allowing supplies to be sent to a paramilitary group in Puntland through OR Tambo; and for ignoring official United Nations requests for information about the South African companies and individuals implicated in the report.

Of course, there might be an innocent explanation. “It seems surprising to me that the government would intentionally block information like that, especially given our stance against private military and security companies,” said one African defence analyst to the Daily Maverick. “Depending on which ministry received the request, it could well be incompetence or bureaucratic red tape that blocked access to the information.” It is a damning indictment of a country with ambitions to lead the whole continent – as evidenced by the overwhelming and ultimately successful push for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to head the African Union Commission – that ineptitude or inefficiency is probably the most reasonable explanation South Africa has for its complete lack of action. 

The alternative is much more disturbing: that our government is deliberately protecting private security companies, favouring them even over our United Nations obligations – and our desperate push for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

This isn’t the first time this issue has arisen. “The United Nations wants to know what SA mercenaries were doing helping Gaddafi during the civil war in Libya, but our government isn’t saying a word,” wrote the Mail & Guardian in April. “The government has failed to respond to questions posed by the United Nations relating to claims that South African mercenaries and security companies aided the Gaddafi regime during the Libyan uprising. This has prompted accusations that South Africa is shirking its responsibility to crack down on illicit mercenary activity, as required by its own laws.”

That piece pointed out another incident which indicated suspiciously close ties between the government and mercenaries. On this occasion, several mercenaries had been convicted for an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 – the infamous Wonga Coup – and were a mere five years into their decades-long sentences. Enter Jacob Zuma, who went personally to Equatorial Guinea in 2009 to succesfully negotiate the release of the four South Africans and one Brit. I’ve never read a satisfactory explanation of why our president felt it necessary to personally intervene in favour of the convicted men, guilty by their own admission of trying to topple another government for their own personal gain. Especially when it was a tip-off from South Africa (under the Mbeki administration) to the security forces of Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe which scuppered the plot in the first place.

Whatever the reason for the South African government’s reticence in dealing with the mercenary issue, it is clear that there are questions that need to be answered. And if even the United Nations can’t get the answers to those questions, you know that something must be wrong. DM


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