South Africa could often be described, perhaps euphemistically, as a fickle nation. We have wildly different views on everything. We lambast people who lie about their qualifications, but laud those who through their actions in the furtherance of capitalism may have contributed to a massacre. We complain and moan about corruption, but accept a head of state with an estate that would match any plutocrat you can imagine. But surely nowhere are we more unpredictable than when it comes to the arms industry, our role in it, and our laws around international conflict. And when it comes to selling arms, our behaviour is simply morally unacceptable, and indefensible.
On Tuesday, the news agency Reuters ran a small piece that it sourced from Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency. It quoted the head of the arms company Rosoboronexport (I swear I’m not making that up) as saying that Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, have been planning talks on joint arms production under the frameworks of the BRICS nations. Anatoly Isaikin said they were considering joint projects with several states.
The inescapable conclusion here is that our government is considering producing arms with Russia. A country that has annexed Crimea, aided militants in eastern Ukraine, and stands strongly accused of supplying weapons to a group of militants who brought down Malaysian passenger jet with almost 300 people on board. (Among the dead, by the way, were at least two people with strong South African links.)
Talk about being on the wrong side of history. We have here an aggressive nation that is quickly moving away from its own democratic experiment, and has a strongman system of government completely at odds with our own professed political culture, and yet we are quite happy to work with this government. Not just at an economic level – that could, perhaps, be understandable – but in producing weapons. Weapons that could well be used against the Ukraine, maybe in Moldova soon, and who knows where else on Earth where Vladimir Putin will turn his ambitions.
Then we have our own Foreign Military Assistance Act. This Act states that it is illegal, as a South African, to go into a “conflict zone” and render assistance to any side. In any other words, you are not allowed to be a South African and fight for another country in any conflict. On one level this makes complete sense. We don’t want South African mercenaries to go back to the DRC, for example. It’s not good for us, it’s not good for the DRC, and it makes it too easy for Hollywood to parody white South Africans as evil, violent psychopaths.
But then consider the flip side of this. It is illegal to go and provide your physical self for use in a conflict. Yet it is perfectly legal to build, and sell, a machine that will go into that conflict zone and be used to kill people.
It gets worse. The main company that sells arms proudly stamped “Made in the RSA” is Denel. Its shareholder is government. Congratulations: as a citizen, you’re the proud part-owner of an arms company. But don’t you dare go and fight in a war now, children.
If you’re not confused yet, hold on a bit, because as the man always says in those annoying infomercials – but wait, there’s more.
It emerged on EWN on Thursday that the Act is badly worded, and that the regulations that were supposed to be published under it have not been. As a result, if you look at the Act, it would appear that any South African in what our government considers a “conflict zone” is not allowed to do almost anything. So this would mean that it would be possible to charge South Africans who join the Israeli Defence Force during the current Gaza conflict. And indeed the Workers International Vanguard Party [which doesn’t sound like a group of natural Daily Maverick readers – Ed] has indeed gone ahead and done just that, charged two South Africans currently in the IDF.
However, because of the imprecision of these regulations, there is no actual clarity on what “rendering assistance” to either side might mean. Thus, if you, as a perfectly humanitarian gesture, went to provide medical assistance and helped someone hurt in fighting on either side, you could be breaking the law.
Only in South Africa could an organisation like Gift of the Givers quite rightly be praised to the skies by government, possibly have ANC representation at the airport when it leaves and when it returns from Gaza, and yet also possibly be breaking the law all at the same time.
It is yet another example of how bad, and confused, our law-making processes are at the moment.
That said, at least the Foreign Military Assistance Act was passed with the best of intentions. The aim was to stop South Africans fighting and fanning other peoples’ wars. Or, if you prefer, from trying to kill people in other countries.
Why, then, this double standard? Surely, to be consistent, we should be also believing it would be wrong to send machines that can be used to hurt and kill people in other countries.
Especially when literally two seconds on Google shows that we’ve been selling armour to such paragons of representative government as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria. While these nations may tell our representatives that actually they will be used only in “crowd control” and for peaceful purposes, we have no control over what they’re used for. It’s impossible to know what situations will develop, and how they will actually be used. A quick change in government can easily see arms made here suddenly being used as instruments of repression or mass murder.
The fact is, if you sell arms, guns and ammunition, you are really exporting death, widows and orphans. And that is simply unjustifiable.
There will be those who will claim, So what? That if we don’t make them, someone else will. Then let someone else do it. We should be better than that. It will also be claimed that this industry creates jobs for South Africans. Of course, that’s true. But it’s not good enough. Would it then be justifiable to make a poison gas and sell it to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (current occupations: beheading children and burying families alive in Northern Iraq) just because it would make money at home?
It may also be said that we don’t really sell offensive weapons. But drones that we make here could easily be weaponised. Armoured cars for “crowd control” could be used as battering rams into pro-democracy demonstrations.
All of that said, it is completely understandable that we do have an arms industry here. We should be able to defend ourselves, if and when we need to. It is impossible to predict when suddenly we may find ourselves in a hostile environment, and there is a duty on government to prepare for that, in case it ever does need to protect our citizens.
But it is surely not debatable that there is no case to justify selling weapons, or any offensive machinery, to other countries. We don’t let our citizens do what we design those machines to do. So we just shouldn’t do it. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine