The Merchants of Death and the Bodyguard of Lies

So much hogwash has been generated over the 1990s South African arms deal that you could probably float our submarines in it and have enough depth to practice crash-diving.

First, what was the problem? Why did we need arms? For that you have to go back to the apartheid era (sadly, this is a kind of mantra for anyone trying to understand current South Africa).

The apartheid state gradually militarised itself as everybody started hating it and some people started doing something practical about that hate.

In the twenty years following the 1957 Defense Act which legitimised conscription (before that the South African military had been a voluntary thing, and during the Boer War many sons of the veld nipped home to see how the harvest was doing and missed the battles), South Africa’s military expanded by — whoo, a whole great big lot. Basically it changed from a couple of battalions of squaddies with Lee-Enfields and Marmon-Herrington armoured cars into a couple of divisions of troepies with R-1s and Eland armoured cars. This doesn’t mean a hell of a lot if you don’t know a battalion from a division, but trust the Creator, it was a big change. Spending went up a hundredfold or in that order, at least measured in South Africa’s rapidly-inflating rands.

But some things didn’t change much. Back in the 1950s, when South Africa was part of the British Empire and the British Empire was part of the American Empire, someone in Washington discovered South Africa on a map and suggested that we be used to guard the Cape Sea Route. Someone in London suggested that money could be made out of this, and so South Africa was sold three Leander-class frigates with which to do the guarding. We had a navy! All the admirals were very excited.

The Leander was an anti-submarine frigate, but a rather primitive one. It had obsolete guns in front, an obsolete depth-charge thrower at the back, and an ineffective little helicopter in between. However, it looked very beautiful, the Navy proudly named the ships the President class, and all went well until during an exercise, a Navy warship failed to indicate a turn and cut President Kruger, the Navy flagship, in half. With only two ships, it was impossible to guarantee one on patrol all the time, so the survivors were mothballed and eventually scrapped.

Much more useful and practical were the Daphne -class submarines which South Africa bought from France after the British and American arms boycott took effect. At the same time, South Africa bought a few squadrons of Mirage III fighters, and later, some more advanced Mirage F1 fighters.

The trouble, though, was that after the mandatory arms boycott, even France wasn’t prepared to sell South Africa weapons, except a little under the counter (as when France sold South Africa kits to make her Alouette helicopters into gunships). By this time the South African military was focussed almost entirely on ground forces, especially after the dismal defeat in Angola in 1976 showed just how poorly equipped and trained the SADF really was. (That was why the term of conscription was increased from one year to two.) So South Africa bought Israeli warships instead, the Reshef missile boat under the name of Minister, and eventually bought some Kfir fighters under the name of Cheetah. All this was unsatisfactory. The Reshefs were bad seakeepers and no real replacement for the frigates. The Cheetahs were downgraded copies of the obsolete Mirage III. When it came to the crunch at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987, the SAAF lost a Mirage to anti-aircraft missiles in the first week of fighting and thereafter refused to offer supersonic ground support. Then the Cubans brought in MiG-23s — no great shakes as fighters, but enough to chase the SAAF clean out of Angola.

So at the end of the 1980s, the Navy and Air Force were grumpy. They had been starved of proper equipment because it was too expensive and difficult to obtain under the boycott, but also because, boy, did Botha love his Army. In theory the SADF could put half a million troops in the field. But this gigantic land animal had no birds or fish accompanying it, and as it turned out, the South Africans were kicked right out of Namibia and the Navy and Air Force suggested, snottily, that maybe the Army might need a little help. The frigates were gone, the submarines and jet fighters were crumbling in their hangars with age — some replacements were needed. The only problem was, how to justify this by finding an enemy? The SADF, smelling a money shortage after De Klerk decided to end conscription, declared for the Indian peril, suggesting that the sinister Hindus were about to come over and make us all talk Gujerati. It didn’t seem very plausible.

But then De Klerk himself was turfed out and made way for the Madiba. The new SANDF, which had the same old admirals and generals, plus a few new ones who thought they would look very fine on the quarter-decks of ships or taking the salute at a fly-past of jets, dusted off its plans and presented them to the new Cabinet.

There were several reasons for implementing the plans. Nobody took the notion of an external threat very seriously; India and China were focussed on their own development and political problems, while America at that time was taking over the world economically via the WTO and didn’t seem to need firepower. On the other hand, a few submarines made sense; if anybody did try to attack South Africa they were the best possible deterrent short of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, sizeable surface ships were good for showing the flag around Africa; if you want to perform gunboat diplomacy, as South Africa discovered during the Congo crisis, it helps to have an actual gunboat. Finally, if South Africa was to do anything serious militarily anywhere in Africa it needed to have air cover, so fighters made sense.

Meanwhile, a big purchase of long-desired weaponry was effectively a bribe to the military top brass to keep them sweet, which was important while Joe Modise was floundering around trying to integrate a dozen armed forces into one coherent whole. It was also significant in that it gave South Africa more military clout without giving the military any more capacity to challenge the government’s authority; nobody can sustain a coup with fighters and warships. So it made a lot of sense from a political as well as a military perspective.

There was a problem; it was expensive. It was expensive at a time when everybody agreed that the ANC ought to be making reconstruction and development a priority. Also, at a time when the ANC was starting to think that it should cut back on spending so as to balance the budget. Couldn’t it have waited? Probably it could. If it could have, not postponing it was a mistake. (Alternatively the ANC might have felt that, since the spending was a one-off expenditure, it might as well be got over with. The weapons were not going to get any cheaper.)

As a result the ANC walked into a firestorm of criticism, much of which was legitimate, all of which it ignored.

To reduce the criticism, the ANC negotiated with the British Government, something which is a very silly thing to do at most times, but especially over an arms deal (arms is one of the few things the Thatcher government didn’t privatise). What they negotiated was what were called “offsets”, meaning that the British would undertake to invest in South Africa in return for South Africa buying British weapons. The way it was packaged it sounded a good deal — too good to be true, and so it proved, for the offsets never materialised and the South Africans had to buy the weapons anyway. Also, the falling value of the rand in the late 1990s meant that the cost of the deal, which was costed in US dollars, was greater in rand terms than before (at one point it was double the original rand expenditure, though it ended up about 50% greater). This all led to more criticism.

But it should be pointed out that along with valid criticism — that the weapons were being given too high a priority relative to reconstruction and development or antiretrovirals for AIDS — came a lot of other criticism which was far less valid. There was a lot of hostility to the ANC buying weapons at all; various people declared in major newspapers that black people could not fly aeroplanes or sail ships, and therefore the whole affair was ridiculous. (The Mail and Guardian ran with that.) Others claimed that there was absolutely no reason for South Africa to have any weapons, for Africa was a peaceful place and if South Africa needed defense she could call on the United States.

It is possible that there were hidden motives for some of this hostility. South Africa was ostentatiously not buying its weapons from the United States; the warships came from Germany, basic training aircraft from Switzerland, advanced trainers from Britain and combat aircraft from Sweden; part of the military electronics also came from France. Possibly the United States felt insulted; possibly many pro-American South African commentators (and most South African right-wingers are pro-American) wanted to avenge this. In any case, the chorus of criticism grew.

It became stronger when it became apparent that, as with most arms deals, there was corruption involved. In most cases South African arms companies, mainly ones established at the time when the apartheid war machine was flourishing, did not get their contracts. It was understandable that these companies, led by people with no love for the post-apartheid government, should complain about corruption. It was also not odd that there might be some corruption, which follows arms deals as flies follow incontinent cows. However, ironically, the ANC had undertaken the arms deal out in the open, unlike the apartheid regime which had always hidden its arms trading in a cloak of secrecy, and therefore the ANC faced criticism which the apartheid state had never had to endure (some of the critics, like Terry Crawford-Browne, had at least been peripherally involved in anti-apartheid activities, but others were simply reactionary opportunists).

In any case, there were complaints, and various agencies investigated. (At this time government investigative agencies were in a state of chaos, many of them penetrated by organised crime or devoted to the careers of their bosses, and it was only a few years later that the Scorpions came to solve the mess.) It was obvious that there were problems, particularly related to one man involved in the deal, “Chippy” Shaik, who seemed to have undeclared business interests. However, the investigators also discovered an MP, Tony Yengeni, who had (against Parliamentary rules) failed to declare a donation which proved to be a R100 000 bribe towards a luxury vehicle. He had been a guerrilla commander in the 1980s and had served years in jail as a result; even worse, among the many others who proved to have done the same (mostly black businesspeople) was another guerrilla commander, Siphiwe Nyanda, who was actually the Chief of the SANDF. Nyanda quietly resigned, and most of the others cut deals with the state, but Yengeni stoutly and falsely declared his innocence, was found guilty on overwhelming evidence and sentenced to prison. The people who rallied around him could have almost created a Who’s Who of Sleaze in the ANC; virtually all of them ended up in the Zuma camp years later, like Baleka Mbete. (Eventually he spent a little over a month of his sentence in luxurious confinement.)

All this might seem rather impressive; not only had the ANC actually secured the investigation of its arms deal and found corruption, but it had taken fairly vigorous action. However, this was ignored by the white public and the press, because they were after bigger fish. They hoped to use the arms deal to bring down President Mbeki, and so they pressed for tougher action and spread wild and misleading stories about supposed corruption; another MP, Patricia de Lille, actually was briefly suspended from Parliament when her statements on the arms deal proved unfounded.

Meanwhile, the Scorpions persisted, and eventually found that “Chippy” had a brother, Schabir Shaik, a big businessman and former ANC Intelligence officer, who happened to be Deputy President Zuma’s financial adviser. It was speedily found that Zuma was living beyond his means and that huge sums had been paid into his bank account by Shaik — with more difficulty, the Scorpions discovered that a French arms company had also put Zuma on the payroll. Shaik was arrested and jailed on irrefutable evidence which essentially fingered Zuma as either a crook (if he knew he was receiving bribes) or too big an idiot to tie his own shoelaces (if, as he claimed, he did not know that the half-million-rand tranches of money appearing in his account were bribes).

But this was a huge disappointment to the media, who rather liked Zuma, and so the accusations against Mbeki went on. Since nobody could prove that Mbeki had actually taken any money himself, the accusers fell back on claiming that the ANC’s considerable wealth, which made it independent of business contributions (to the horror and hatred of business) must have come from corrupt transactions linked to the arms deal. There was no evidence for this, so it could not be investigated, but it remains an item of faith to this day. The fact that the arms deal, and the corruption which went with it, was better handled by South Africa than arms deals and related corruption have been handled by almost any other country in the world, simply passes the public by, since the propagandists do not want to discuss it.

But it should be discussed.

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