South Africa's Militarism

By Terry Crawford-Browne | 1999-03-01 12:00:00

South Africans owe an enormous debt of gratitude for the role Canadians played, especially within the Commonwealth, in applying pressure for constitutional change to a non-racist and democratic society.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's leadership role back in 1961 led to South Africa's expulsion from the Commonwealth, and placed the evils of apartheid firmly onto the world's political agenda. Another 30 years of incrementally-increasing sanctions would pass before Nelson Mandela's release from prison finally signaled the approaching end of the apartheid era.

The U.N. Security Council in 1977 judged apartheid South Africa to be a threat to international peace and security, and imposed an arms embargo. The decision to override article 2.7 of the U.N. Charter by determining that severe abuses of human rights constitute threats to international peace ranks as one of the major developments of twentieth century diplomacy.

"Some day we will be free," declared Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate, who then used his world platform to mobilize nonviolent international pressure against the regime. Chase Manhattan Bank in 1985 withdrew its loans to South Africa precipitating a financial crisis, which proved to be the greatest single blow against apartheid.

Social Inequality

Despite expectations over decades that South Africa would erupt into a blood bath, the transition to democracy in 1994 was relatively peaceful. It was touch-and-go, and we are still celebrating that "political miracle." The second election is scheduled for May 1999, in which the African National Congress is expected to win about 59 percent of the vote.

Needed now are "economic and social miracles" to sustain the country's fragile democracy. The legacies of apartheid are horrendous. South Africa has been described economically as 15 percent North America, 20 percent South America and 65 percent The Congo. Its GINI coefficient (index of inequality) ranks with Brazil's for the dubious distinction of being the worst in the world.

The relatively rich enjoy a California lifestyle of two cars, swimming pools and shopping malls, but the majority of South Africans annually earn less than U.S. $600. Seven million people (of a population of 40 million) live in shacks. Half the dwellings have no electricity. There are 12 million people without access to safe drinking water.

The infant mortality rate in rural areas ranks with the worst in Africa. Tuberculosis is rife, and some 25 percent of pregnant women are HIV positive. About half of the population is under the age of 16 and the unemployment rate is about 35 percent.

The economy has been stagnant for over twenty years: indeed, South Africa has been one of the world's economic disaster stories. Apartheid included economic mismanagement of a country endowed with immense natural resources. The value of its currency, the rand, has collapsed from U.S.$1.35 per rand in 1979 to R6 per dollar now.

Few criminals are arrested

The threat to South Africa's security and democratic transition is poverty. Teachers and nurses are being laid-off because the government lacks the funds to pay their salaries. The judicial system - police, courts and jails - which underpinned the apartheid system is in shambles. Few criminals are arrested, let alone brought successfully to trial.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Tutu submitted its reports last October after more than two years of hearings and investigations. The TRC, which was tasked to investigate gross abuses of human rights during 1960-1994, was the result of political compromise. No Nuremberg-type trials were possible given the negotiated settlement between the apartheid government and its democratic successor.

The prospect of amnesty had to be offered to perpetrators of human rights abuses in return for full details of their crimes. Television and press coverage has been such that no one now can claim that he or she did not know about the evils of apartheid. "Never again" has been the purpose of the TRC, in the recognition of history that the oppressed too often become the next generation of oppressors.

Countries around the world, from Cambodia to Northern Ireland, are now studying South Africa's TRC experience, which was shaped by, but went much further than, similar commissions in Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador.

A survey of public attitudes in South Africa towards the Commission's work indicates that 80 percent of the victims of apartheid believe that reconciliation is possible. Sadly, it remains the beneficiaries of apartheid who still tend to shun and spurn the offers of reconciliation.

"What is at stake," says Tutu, "is the very concept of a human being." He rejects the argument that a "normal human being must lust for revenge. There has always been the idea," he says, "that only the weak forgive. In fact, it is the strong who are able to forgive. It's the strong, ultimately, who can ask for forgiveness. The weak person is the one who never wants to acknowledge that he can be wrong."

Mandela's enormous achievement has been in holding this fractious country together. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, has to make it work and deliver the expectations of a better life for the victims of the apartheid era. His vision is what he terms the African Renaissance.

South Africa developed an exceptionally strong network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the struggle against apartheid. Yet by standards in economically advanced countries, its civil society remains exceedingly weak. The Constitution and its Bill of Rights, on paper, are considered perhaps the most progressive anywhere in the world.

Rates of Murder and Rape

But democracy remains tentative and very fragile. Commitment to non-violent resolution of conflict still has to be inculcated into a population that for many generations has been subjected to a culture of violence. The rates of murder and of rape in South Africa are the worst in the world. Violence is yet another of the legacies of apartheid and its abuse of human rights.

There is no shortage of people promoting the restoration of the death penalty despite insistence by both the ANC government and the Constitutional Court that capital punishment is unconstitutional.

Despite the premise of the defence review that control over the military by civil society is fundamental in a democracy, the military has displayed utter contempt for the truth and reconciliation process. This included destruction of military intelligence files and records of South Africa's deliberate destabilization of neighboring countries.

The armaments industry had been given carte blanche by the apartheid government after the 1977 imposition of the U.N. arms embargo. As TRC hearings revealed, it included a diabolical chemical and biological warfare program. Manufacture of ecstasy, mandrax (a local drug), thallium, cholera, and anthrax - intended to destroy the "non-white" population and in quantities sufficient to cause epidemics - these are the realities of South Africa's armaments industry.

Inexplicably, instead of being closed down, the armaments industry is now being internationally promoted by government ministers. They have swallowed the notion that weapons exports contribute to job creation and earn foreign exchange. World-wide, the armaments industry is capital rather than labor-intensive. It is also heavily subsidized, which thus diverts public resources away from socio-economic investment in people.

Sadly, whether in Britain, France, the United States, or South Africa, the armaments industry "owns" the politicians. Wherever in the world there is a particularly dirty and nasty war, weapons exported from South Africa are almost certain to be involved.

We in South Africa watch in horror as the Democratic Republic of the Congo disintegrates. Kabila is backed by Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan, and Congo (Brazzaville). Against him are Uganda and Rwanda. And South African weapons have been supplied to all sides.

The military establishment still views the world as a dangerous place. The assumption still holds sway that it is necessary to have a defence force even though there is no conceivable foreign military threat to South Africa.

A nation's security, in the view of the military, is ultimately safeguarded by force of arms. Yet South Africa's own experience is that the tens of billions spent on military paraphernalia - including even nuclear bombs - proved totally irrelevant in defending the apartheid system. Apartheid was overcome by non-violent measures, not war.

Yet despite, and indeed compounding the crises of poverty, the government proposes to spend U.S.$5 billion on imported warplanes and warships from Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Italy. (Canada did tender to supply Bell 427 helicopters, but lost out to Italy).

Church leaders and NGOs have expressed outrage. They argue that illiteracy, unemployment, ill-health, and lack of housing are what pose threats to a secure and prosperous future, and that democracy cannot thrive under such conditions.

European love for Mandela

The lure to a government desperate for foreign investments and jobs are offsets offered by European armaments worth U.S.$18.3 billion which, supposedly, will create 65,000 jobs. South Africans buy warships and warplanes for use against a non-existent foreign enemy and the Europeans, out of generosity and love for Mandela, will supposedly make massive investments in the country.

That, at least, is the patter! International studies show that the costs of offsets are recovered by increasing the prices of weapons being purchased, and that the levels of job creation and technology transfer are generally minimal.

The World Trade Organization and international bankers condemn the system of offsets prevalent in the international armaments industry because of resultant distortions to market forces. Still more importantly, it is wide-open to malpractice and corruption.

Of that, sadly, there is also no shortage in South Africa. Corruption is yet another legacy of the colonial and apartheid eras. The whole economy since discoveries first of diamonds and then of gold - two essentially worthless commodities - has been based upon exploitation and greed. As Tutu commented, "the ANC stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on board."

The Church of Sweden has reacted to the intended U.S.$1.8 billion sale to South Africa of 28 SAAB JAS 39 Gripen fighter aircraft by threatening to sell its investments in any Swedish companies which participate in the offset program.

The matter of exporting weapons to Third World countries is highly controversial in Sweden, especially after the corruption scandal during the 1980s in sales of Bofors artillery to India. Swedes are uncomfortable with the effort of their government and businesses to sell weapons to poor countries. Such sales seem to violate the Swedish commitment to humanitarian assistance and their opposition to apartheid.

The SAAB JAS 39 Gripen is a particular embarrassment, given a history of cost overruns and crashes. Church and peace-oriented NGOs have held hearings in Stockholm of parliamentarians, academics and theologians to protest against the proposed deal.

Not a done deal

The South African government, when it announced its rearmament decision in November 1998, presented it to the public and taxpayers as being a "done deal." Citizens were expected to applaud the offset program which, supposedly, would bring in huge foreign investments, but of which they were not allowed to know the details because of confidentiality clauses.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited South Africa in January 1999, it quickly became evident, however, that very far from being a fait accompli, the deals are likely to come unglued. Campaigns are being mobilized in England and, similarly, in Germany to insist that European governments apply the provisions of the European Union's 1998 Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.

Already, and citing South Africa's weapons procurement program, Zimbabwe is now buying weapons from Russia despite its own calamitous economic circumstances. Likewise, Botswana is buying aircraft and tanks from Canada and Austria and, consequently, neighboring Namibia feels threatened. A whole new arms race is in the offing, albeit on a smaller scale than recent weapons sales to the Middle and Far East.

Indonesia and Malaysia were heavy buyers of European weapons just a couple of years ago. Now their economies are in shreds and there are riots in the streets. Is this the prospect for Southern Africa?

In its case, thankfully, the Americans are not involved. Although the U.N. arms embargo was lifted in 1994 with the transition to democracy, the Americans maintained their ban on weapons sales to South Africa until last year. The reason is that during the 1980s South Africa's armaments industry pirated "state-of-the-art" American missile technology through a company in Pennsylvania and passed it on to China and to Iraq.

Not surprisingly, the Americans were not very pleased, and the Armscor case has been the main bone-of-contention between the United States and South Africa over the past five years.

Africa is awash with weapons, and Africans are the cannon fodder for the international armaments industry. The tragedy of Angola illustrates the point. Angola has enormous mineral resources as well as agricultural potential. It is anticipated that in twenty years time Angola will produce more oil than all the countries of the Middle East combined.

Diamonds for Guns

Angola's MPLA government has mortgaged its future oil income for weapons, whilst weapons for the rebel UNITA movement are funded by diamonds. UNITA were surrogates for the apartheid government and the American CIA during the "Cold War." The country is devastated after almost forty years of war but the elites on both sides now have vested interests in maintaining the carnage. There are an estimated fifteen million landmines in Angola, which has the largest number of amputees anywhere in the world. Amongst the consequences is famine because the farmer risks being blown up as she hoes her fields.

Angola, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda - all the disaster stories of Africa are merely variants of the same story - a small but greedy elite in control of natural resources and in collusion with the international armaments industry. What hope for Thabo Mbeki's African Renaissance?

International conscience

Canada - given its role both in the Ottawa Treaty against landmines and the Nobel Peace Laureates' International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers - yet again can make an enormous contribution to international human rights. All the countries of Southern Africa, except Angola, are members of the Commonwealth.

The Hague Appeal for Peace 1999 sets the abolition of war as its goal. A decisive step towards that would be the total prohibition of arms exports to Third World countries. It is utterly obscene that the British government - despite its pledges of an ethical foreign policy - still promotes exports of weapons to Africa where the consequence is human misery.

Terry Crawford-Browne chairs the South African affiliate of Economists Allied for Arms Reduction (ECAAR).

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Terry Crawford-Browne here

Peace Magazine homepage