Opinionista Pikkie Greeff 30 July 2018

Cigar Smoke & Mirrors, 2.0 – the sordid and unpleasant tale of the Cuban engineers

In my previous piece in 2015 I discussed a highly controversial and ridiculously expensive training deal that was struck in potentially fraudulent circumstances between the SANDF and a Cuban entity. Let’s pick up the tale in 2018.

The latter was an affiliate of GAESA (Grupo de Administracion Empresarial, SA) or Group for Entrepreneurial Administration, the business arm of the Cuban military regime which was established in the 1990s by, it would seem, the rather business-minded Marxist, Raoul Castro. This group effectively runs the entire Cuban economy, belongs to and is controlled by the Castro family and effectively labour brokers Cuban civil servants worldwide at fees which end up in Castro-associated Swiss bank accounts.

This agreement came at the expense of qualified South African engineers and serving military artisans and in defiance of the need to train new South African military artisans from the ample numbers of new military recruits acquired each year. In addition, questions arose about the non-existent security clearances of the Cubans sent to SA under this deal, especially in view of the fact that the Cuban company by which they’re contracted has been linked to Cuban intelligence operations in Africa and elsewhere in the world operating under the guise of labour contract agreements.

It is worth mentioning that not much has changed concerning the unknowns about the Cuban engineers’ qualifications and lack of security clearances in the past three years, except of course that the costs of the exercise have grown on an annual basis. While I await my remarks in the 2015 piece to be disproved (which by now I doubt it ever will), another interesting and rather perplexing development has been associated with the Cuban deployment to SA in the Rapport newspaper of 23 July 2018. The veteran military reporter, Erika Gibson, uncovered a story that yet again leaves a trail of unanswered questions in the seemingly bizarre fascination that the top brass of the SANDF seems to have developed towards Cuba.

The article details how an SAA plane was chartered to transport some of the Cuban deployees home for their summer holidays and how the SANDF failed to inform SAA of the fact that on the same flight it would be transporting live ammunition and military hardware to Cuba. Ultimately, SAA refused to transport the hardware and munitions – and rightly so. To appreciate the full implications of the issues at stake, one needs to delve a bit deeper into the detail. It makes for interesting reading and a load of questions.

In preparation of this piece I spoke to several sources. This is what they told me:

The SANDF needed to charter a private flight to transport the Cubans on Friday 20 July 2018. The costs of that charter, for which I was unable to establish a price tag, would run into several hundreds of thousands (if not in excess of millions). Previous SANDF chartered flights have been shown to cost anywhere from R4-million to R26-million.

It might be that using SAA could have represented some kind of cost saving but the point is that it seems a pretty lousy deal the SANDF made with Cuba when recruiting these engineers on a contractual basis. I say this because not only is SA paying the Cuban companies (which in effect run the Cuban economy as mentioned in Part 1 in 2015) what is effectively a labour brokerage fee, it is also paying the daily living expenses of these engineers as well as their luxuriously renovated accommodation.

On top of this, the SANDF also has to shuttle these engineers once a year over a flight distance of roughly 25,000km at our cost. Clearly the then Castro regime of 2012 saw the SANDF coming by a mile and continues to take our taxpayers and their money, from an already notoriously crippled Defence Budget, for a gigantic ride. More about how this deal with Cuba makes even less sense – given the facts that arose recently – follows later in this piece.

The more perplexing part of the latest story is however that someone in the SANDF made the astounding decision to throw into the payload three Thoroughtec simulators which the SANDF uses for heavy duty military vehicle driver training. Furthermore was a quantity of R4 and R5 assault rifles, as well as several LMGs (light machine guns) and 9mm Star pistols as well as several rounds of ammunition.

In the same go the same someone in the SANDF decided to keep SAA in the dark about the fact that this equipment would be transported together with actual personnel on board an SAA plane. It is understood that SAA only became aware of the possibility of this explosive load when Erika Gibson, the journalist working the story, asked whether it was SAA policy to transport military hardware. It seems SAA immediately alerted the customs authorities who apparently pointed out that the necessary export permits did not exist.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Seriously, the SANDF was, up to that moment of being discovered, going to export military equipment, weapons and ammunition with a load of passengers on a commercial airline without informing the airline of the potentially dangerous nature of the load and without the necessary and legally required export permits. Complete insanity.

Add to this that the private contractors who would normally transport this hardware to the plane for some reason refused to do so, leaving the SANDF to transport it by itself – a highly unusual move. The suspicion is that the transport contractor was, of course, not willing to transport to export point hardware for which no transport nor export permit/authority could be shown. That would after all constitute being a possible accessory to a crime.

It is further understood that the SANDF then attempted to “fix” what apparently in its view presented but a small obstacle, by obtaining last-minute permits of export from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), the statutory body in South Africa which oversees/authorises military hardware exports and sales.

However, SAA stood its ground in that, permits or not, it was point blank refusing to transport military hardware on one of its planes, let alone with passengers on board. I am told that this refusal even prompted a very high-level delegation of the Department of Defence to rush to SAA in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt at changing SAA’s mind on the matter.

Apparently the initial explanation that was provided by management in the SANDF to the entire episode was that the military hardware was designated by authority of the Chief Joint Operations of the SANDF to be utilised in training. The problem with that explanation is multipronged. Nothing in the agreement between the SANDF and Cuba provides for training of Cuban military personnel by either SANDF personnel or SANDF resources such as weapons. Nor for providing SANDF hardware by export to Cuba for training purposes. It also fails to explain why the necessary export permits were not acquired and it does not explain the clandestine nature of the original intent – even to the extent of seemingly being willing to break the law.

In an article in the same issue carried on News24, dated 23 July 2018, (place link here) the SANDF referred all enquiries on the issue to Jeff Radebe, the Chairperson of the NCACC. This referral is in itself significant, as it certainly has never been practice for the SANDF to expect the NCACC to account for the movement and / or control of SANDF weapons and hardware. The same referral turned out to be significant for another reason. The spokesperson for SAA in the same article states that it is against SAA policy to carry “munitions of war” and “arms and ammunition”.

He goes on to formally declare that the flight will go ahead but without the weaponry. Note how SAA does not deny that there were weapons contained in the initial consignment. If anything, its comments confirm the presence thereof. Furthermore, the purported comments by Radebe as NCACC chair is telling. He states that South Africa as a sovereign nation requires “no permission to export such arms and ammunition”. Again, note how Radebe does not dispute nor deny that the initial consignment contained weapons and ammunition nor that the NCACC had issued export permits for it. He also fails to explain when and how these permits were acquired, for that process would certainly require a formal application, meeting and consideration fully minuted. Radebe also, in providing this response, dabbles in spin. At issue is not whether SA needs others’ permission to export weapons or military hardware, the issue is whether or not and why the SANDF had not seemingly, at least initially, complied with the law. This remains not for Radebe to explain, but the SANDF certainly has to.

It would seem as if these comments by SAA and NCACC did not do the SANDF any favours in wriggling itself out of the tight spot it had been placed in by Gibson’s initial reporting. So, in an apparent attempt to dig itself out of the foxhole it had been caught up in, the SANDF fired off its own official version in a media statement on 27 July 2018, in which it simply resorted to denying that the weapons were at any stage part of the 20 July consignment. It fails to counter that it initially lacked or had at the 11th hour applied and was granted export permits, or that it attempted to convince SAA to change its mind in refusing to transport the consignment, or even explain why SAA had refused to transport the consignment in the first place.

The SANDF also fails to counter the allegation that SAA had been kept in the dark as to the nature of the consignment. More tellingly, it doesn’t even attempt to explain the remarks by both the SAA and NCACC which clearly confirmed the presence of weapons in the consignment. Surely, if the Rapport article alleging that weapons were present in the consignment was false, then both the SAA and NCACC would have used the soonest opportunity on 23 July to deny the accuracy of the article as far as any of its aspects are concerned?

The lawyer in me tells me that on a balance of probabilities, the evidence weighs heavily in favour of the Rapport article being accurate and the SANDF version being a poorly constructed camouflage to hide the truth.

Which brings one to yet another aspect in this fiasco – the further explanation by the SANDF in its media statement that admits that the Thoroughtec simulators were indeed part of the controversial consignment. See what’s happening here? The SANDF would have you believe that Rapport only lied about part of the story, the rest is true. The SANDF expects you to believe therefore that Rapport had some (undisclosed and unexplained) ulterior motive to partly lie about SANDF activities.

I’ve said it before and I will repeat it without fear of contradiction: Erika Gibson is an absolute ace veteran reporter in military matters. I have yet to see in the 22 years that I’ve followed her that even a single story she reported on was proven to be inaccurate.

But let’s get back to the Thoroughtec simulators. The SANDF claims that the simulators were being transported to Cuba in furtherance of the agreement (discussed in Part 1) between the latter and the SANDF. It further claims the export to fall under project Thusano and aimed at “development, maintenance and repairs” (training of SANDF personnel on these simulators).

This explanation, even if one accepts it falling within the bilateral agreement framework for capacitating SANDF personnel with technical skills, raises various questions. I could not establish whether Thoroughtec, which is a worldwide manufacturer and maintainer of simulators, has a maintenance or support contract with the SANDF, as this would be the accepted practice. If there is such a contract then the SANDF needs to explain why the Cubans need to teach our personnel how to fix or maintain the simulators and why Thoroughtec isn’t kept to its contractual obligations.

If however there is no such maintenance or support contract, then the SANDF needs to explain why not. Why was the unwise decision made, and who made it, to acquire equipment with that vast technical maintenance requirements and price tag, yet forgo the standard contractual maintenance obligations by the supplier? These heavy duty vehicle simulators are not made to be transported over vast distances or moved around and they are certainly not designed with the idea of moving them around for maintenance purposes. In addition, their size makes moving a considerable logistical exercise.

Moving these simulators 12,000km to Cuba for the purposes the SANDF claims makes little logistical or financial sense. Cuban personnel are already in SA as per the bilateral agreement. Why not just send whatever Cuban training personnel is required to South Africa at the existing simulator sites? Instead we not only pay to have simulators move over 12,000km, we will also have to send SANDF personnel to Cuba to be trained on it, also at our cost.

Yet the basis for the bilateral agreement has always been, on the SANDF’s own version, that the entire concept of the agreement rested on cost savings while enhancing technical capability. At the same time one has to question why one would need Cuban expertise to provide simulator training, when hundreds of Reserve Force members, all of whom are South African citizens and many of whom are unemployed, are military qualified heavy military vehicle instructors and similator maintenance personnel. It is odd, if not patently disloyal to our own citizens, that these skills are simply ignored in pursuit of some ill-considered infatuation with pumping tax money into Cuba. Clearly South Africa is on the wrong side of this deal.

In the end we have two things appearing from the smoke in this story – a reasonable inference that military weapons almost left our shores without the necessary permits, without any explanation or clarity as to the reason behind it, an allegation being met with spin and downright incredible denials. Second, we have an explanation for simulators leaving our shores, which raises a barrage of questions and continues to make little financial or national interest sense.

This is the salad being offered to you by the SANDF. Would you like some dressing with that? All right, here it is:

On Thursday, 22 July 2018, the day before the intended departure of the SAA flight, the SANDF top brass thought it prudent to treat some 150-strong Cuban contingent to a farewell braai at a military base, to the great delight and enjoyment of the Cubans and various top SANDF generals, at a price tag, I am told, in excess of R80,000. Another episode in the Cuban tale of smoke and mirrors generously financed by you, the taxpayer. DM

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