(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Arms export controls in meltdown

[DRC] A former child soldier walks past guns handed in by ex-combatants before entry into a disarmament centre in Kpandroma, Ituri District. February 2005.

A report by South Africa's Auditor-General has revealed a serious lack of controls over exports of its vast array of conventional weapons, which a non-governmental organisation monitoring the trade attributes to government's "couldn't be bothered" attitude.

"The Auditor-General demonstrates that South Africa's arms control regime is in a state of advanced crisis, with the upshot that South African arms sales may be fuelling brutal dictators and rogue regimes," a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), David Maynier, said in a statement.

"The [Auditor-General's] report shows that at least 58 arms transactions with clients in at least 26 countries took place without the legally required input by relevant government departments ... For at least 17 transactions there are no delivery verification certificates, meaning arms could have been sold to rogue states; in some cases the certificate indicating the end-user is missing."

According to a report by a national Sunday newspaper, The City Press, weapons were sold to "among others, Sudan, Gabon, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and Central African Republic. Not all of these are engaged in war, rebellion or oppression, but arms can easily transit through to war-torn areas."

The ANC government inherited the arms industry - which at one time was thought to be capable of producing nuclear weapons - when apartheid ended in 1994, and included an arsenal ranging from the Rooivalk attack helicopter, state-of-the-art artillery systems and rocket launchers to assault rifles.

The latest version of the G6-52 Rhino 155mm self-propelled howitzer was unveiled in 2003 at the United Arab Emirates arms show; a single vehicle is able to cover an area of approximately 1,720 sq km from a deployment position, and fires eight rounds a minute.

An arms producer

Egypt and South Africa are the continent's leading producers of conventional weapons, but most other African states rely on imports for their requirements.

South Africa's arms industry was established in the lead-up to the Second World War, when Britain, the former colonial power, decentralized its ammunition and armaments production.

The country's growing international isolation as a result of its racial separation policies and the imposition of a UN arms embargo in 1977 spurred the expansion of the arms industry.

In a bid to achieve self-sufficiency, the rapid development of military capabilities was hastened by a disregard for patents and licensing agreements, and by partnerships forged with other then pariah states, such as Chile, Israel and Taiwan.

In 1995 the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) was established to ensure that "a set of guiding principles and criteria ... which will ensure that arms trade and transfer policies conform to internationally accepted practice" would be followed, according to the website of South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

The NCACC stipulations for ensuring administrative control of arms sales include multi-departmental review and recommendation processes of permit applications, overseen by a minister who chairs the body, and who does not have a line-function interest concerning the arms trade; ultimate accountability rests with the Cabinet, the website said.

According to the City Press, the ministers responsible for controlling arm sales "did not understand and exercise their oversight responsibility related to the issuing of permits and related controls. Permits are issued without proper authorisation, delegation or ratification of the NCACC," the Auditor-General's report said.

"It is solid evidence of administrative meltdown in the NCACC," the DA's Maynier commented. "The country cannot afford to have any more dodgy deals, that arm the dictators of the world, falling through the very wide administrative cracks at the NCACC."

"These decisions are about arms with which people are killed, and about laws which are supposed to keep these deadly weapons out of the hands of rogues and rogue states," he said. "To fix the situation, the NCACC needs to meet regularly, do its work, and report on it fully, as required by law."

Rob Thomson, a professor of actuarial science at the University of the Witwatersrand and chairman of the Arms Reduction Working Group - a unit of Ceasefire, an NGO monitoring South Africa's arms trade - told IRIN that the NCACC was "in disarray", and the arms control committee - which should ensure transparency - was "using it the other way around [for non-transparency]".

He said Ceasefire had initiated legal action for the release of information concerning South Africa's arms trading.

Maynier told IRIN that in the three years up until 2009, when the committee was chaired by former cabinet minister Sydney Mufamadi, the NCACC annual reports were not made publicly available. The committee is currently chaired by Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe.

Driven by profit

Thomson said during apartheid the arms industry's main consideration was national security, but with the advent of democracy profit had become the driving force.

Guy Lamb, in the Arms Management Programme of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN that the Denel Group, an arms parastatal and the country's largest weapons manufacturer, continued to make losses and had to find export markets to make a profit.

"The Denel Group reported losses of R549 million (US$72 million) and R347 million (US$45 million) in the 2007 and 2008 financial years respectively. The Chief Executive Officer of Denel, however, expects the company to become financially sustainable by 2012," said an ISS analysis, The Conventional Arms Trade and its Control in Africa, edited by Lamb.

"In 2008, the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee issued arms export permits to the value of R5.9 billion (US$776 million) for some 88 different country destinations," the ISS analysis noted.

Radebe's spokesperson told local media that the minister had responded to parliament after the Auditor-General's report, but his response had yet to be presented to the portfolio committee.


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