We are very quick to condemn Americans when a school bus or a market place in Yemen is bombed by the Saudi led coalition using American weapons. But South African weapons of war have been sold to the Saudi-led coalition since the start of the war with Yemen in 2015, making us complicit in the crimes against humanity taking place in the prosecution of the war.
Those crimes against humanity involve air strikes on numerous hospitals, schools, market places and even funeral gatherings leading to massive civilian casualties, including significant numbers of children. How have we allowed this to happen, and where has the oversight of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee been? The NCACC is a committee comprised of at least seven government ministers, presided over by the Minister in the Presidency, which was established to ensure South African arms are never sold to countries involved in aggression or human rights abuses.
According to reports of the NCACC, in 2016 and 2017 South Africa supplied arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates including heavy artillery guns and assault rifles, ammunition, armored vehicles, surveillance and military technology, amounting to more than R3 billion. According to reports, a total of 1,600 bombs have been sold to the UAE, particularly guided bombs for Mirage jets known as ‘Umbani,’ produced by Tawazun Dynamics, which has a joint venture with our state owned arms manufacturer Denel. Footage in 2015 was broadcast by Al Masirah, a pro-Houthi news channel, of a Seeker II drone shot down in Yemen with “Made in South Africa” clearly marked on it. It should be noted that the UAE has failed to procure Predator drones from the US.
When Brand South Africa markets our locally manufactured products we pride ourselves in the “Made in South Africa” label. South Africa’s reputation post-94 has been built on a commitment to a human rights foreign policy and promotion of peace around the world. We go to great lengths to send our struggle veterans to the far corners of the globe to share the South African experience in conflict resolution and reconciliation. Did any of us even realise that while our envoys have been preaching peace and tolerance, our arms industry has become what Pope Francis has called “an industry of death,” selling South African made armaments to countries that are engaged in brutal wars, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties?
Last year the parliamentary committee requested the former Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, as the Minister responsible for the NCACC, to provide a report on South Africa’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. At the time he had undertaken to look into the matter and revert back to the committee. According to records, Radebe never reported back to the committee, and nor did the committee give him a timeline to do so. That is exactly how things fall through the cracks.
We can’t have it both ways. We cannot have a Minister of International Relations who is genuinely devoted to promoting a foreign policy premised on human rights, while our arms industry operates with impunity, without any real oversight taking place.
How is it that the Spokeswoman of Denel, Vyelwa Qinga, responds to questions about possible arms deals with Saudi Arabia saying, “Denel would welcome any country that looks at South Africa for the procurement of defence material.”
Ms Qinga, did you even know that your statement violates South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act of 2003? Are you even aware that the Act stipulates that “The Republic is a responsible member of the international community, and will not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism”? So legally South Africa, according to its own law, is not allowed to sell arms or arms technology to Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Or maybe you are unaware that Saudi Arabia is prosecuting a war with Yemen since 2015 in which estimates put the number of killed and injured in the fighting at over 16,000 civilians? Save the Children has reported that 50,000 Yemeni children died last year alone as a result of the indirect effects of the war. The UN Human Rights Commission estimates that the Saudi-led coalition air attacks cause two thirds of the reported civilian deaths.
While Denel considers not only selling new major consignments of weapons to Saudi Arabia, it gets worse – Denel is considering taking a huge undisclosed amount of money from Saudi Arabia in return for our intellectual property on weapons technology. So not only might South African-made weapons be killing civilians in Yemen, but our weapons technology may be sold to Saudi Arabia to enable the Saudis to manufacture their own weapons to be used on civilians in Yemen – I don’t know which is worse.
Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) Chief Executive Andrea Schwer has been boasting that the Saudis are expecting to conclude their first partnership deals with South African arms manufacturers by the end of the year. Schwer has admitted that the Saudis want access to South African weapons technology. Schwer was quoted as having said, “Denel must commit to transfer its technology to Saudi Arabia and build up our local capability in manufacturing and engineering.” SAMI is also seeking to secure a highly controversial equity stake in Denel.
It is not only Denel which is contributing to the devastating war in Yemen, but Ivor Ichikowitz’s Paramount Group, a private South African arms manufacturer, has allegedly been in talks with the Saudis with a view to transferring South African weapons technology, and to establish weapons production plants in Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch has very clearly said that coalition airstrikes have caused indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian deaths in Yemen, and called for the suspension of all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Germany and Norway have already suspended all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Belgium has cancelled four arms licences.
Just last month on August 9th, CNN revealed that it was US weapons made by Lockheed Martin that were used in the Saudi-led coalition bombing of a Yemeni school bus, killing 44 children and wounding many more. The horror of the atrocity was abhorred. But the school bus air strike was only the latest in a consistent pattern of massacres and air strikes on civilian targets that include hospitals. Even the second largest US arms producer Boeing has been linked to the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Yemen. Fragments of Boeing bombs were allegedly found in the debris of a 2016 attack on a market place in Sana’a that killed 107 civilians, including 25 children.
Let us hope the day never comes that fragments of South African made missiles are found in the aftermath of an airstrike on a marketplace or a hospital in Yemen. It will be a total embarassment if we are sitting as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council next year, initiating discussions on children in war, and having to answer questions about how South African weapons of war continue to fuel the conflict in Yemen. Perhaps we are just lucky that we haven’t already had to face such questions, given that Yemen has been declared the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Affairs Editor for Voices360 Thought Leadership platform.