No, 'job losses' isn't justification for continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia
For years, Pretoria has faced criticism that its National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) - the government authority that oversees arms exports and regulates South African weapons companies - was turning a blind eye to the illegal use of South African-made weapons in Yemeni war-crimes.
South African weapons companies have been doing big business with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with one-third of all South Africa's arms exports going to those two countries alone in 2018.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the two most actively warring members of a coalition currently wreaking humanitarian havoc in Yemen in an attempt to restore the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
NCACC protocols stipulate that end-users cannot re-export items to another country without South Africa's explicit consent.
Yet, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been doing exactly that, and South African weapons have been turning up with alarming regularity in Yemen for years. Lax enforcement of regulations in South Africa has aided Saudi and Emirati violations of end-user agreements.
Turning a blind eye
As far back as 2011 - long before the Saudi coalition had officially entered the Yemen conflict - there was evidence of Yemeni soldiers using South African armoured vehicles. When asked in parliament how these ended up in Yemen, then-NCACC boss, Jeff Radebe, said he did not know.
|South African weapons have been turning up with alarming regularity in Yemen for years|
In July 2015 - less than three months after the Saudi-led coalition began its devastating destruction of Yemen - television footage showed a South African-made drone being shot down over Yemen. Radebe simply pointed to the possibility of a Saudi breach of NCACC regulations but did not investigate further.
In August 2018 munition fragments found at the scene of a devastating attack on a fish market and hospital in Hodeida were found to be similar to munitions manufactured in South Africa by Rheinmetall-Denel Munitions and supplied to the UAE.
Minister Radebe was also asked by a parliamentary committee to provide a report on South Africa's arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He never did.
The NCACC was clearly turning a blind eye to mounting evidence of Saudi and Emirati breaches of NCACC regulations. Why the reluctance to investigate Saudi and Emirati violations of agreements and possible South African complicity in war crimes being committed in Yemen?
The answer lay in growing business ties between Pretoria and Riyadh. Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged $10-billion to President Cyril Ramaphosa's drive to boost investment in South Africa.
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A new dawn in South Africa
South Africa's elections last May seem to have brought a greater determination from the NCACC - which is now headed by Minister Jackson Mthembu - to ensure that South African arms dealers comply with regulations.
South Africa had always included a clause in its end-user certificates requiring customers to grant access and permission to South African authorities to verify they are in compliance with the country's defence export regulations.
The clause was previously hidden in an annex, and clients amended or sometimes deleted the clause entirely, but were still granted export permits by the NCACC. In 2017, the clause was moved to the front page of the certificates. Up until this year, the clause and inspections were rarely acted upon by South Africa.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have rejected South African calls for inspections, claiming that enforcing the clause would be a violation of their sovereignty. Oman and Algeria have also refused requests for inspections.
RDM's Norbert Schulze indicated that the NCACC had also placed a de facto hold on exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. "We do not have any official statement. The thing we know at this time is that we do not get any export licences for Saudi Arabia or the UAE," he said.
|Lax enforcement of regulations in South Africa has aided Saudi and Emirati violations of end-user agreements|
South African activists have welcomed the new developments.
"The suspension of arms exports to the Middle East is a hopeful sign that this government may finally realise that it cannot pretend to uphold human rights either in SA or internationally whilst promoting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE and other abusers," said Terry Crawford-Browne.
Crawford-Browne has been at the forefront of raising awareness of South Africa's complicity in war-crimes in Yemen.
Last year, he filed a complaint against former President Jacob Zuma and RDM with the Zondo Commission, which is responsible for the inquiry investigating state capture in South Africa. Crawford-Browne is arguing that Zuma and RDM are complicit in Saudi war crimes committed in Yemen.
With no official statement issued by the South African government or the NCACC, the current halt in weapons sales is only a temporary "inspections row".
Crawford-Browne is hoping that Pretoria follows the example of Germany and Norway which have officially suspended exports of weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, citing the risk of misuse in Yemen.
Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium's Walloon regional authority have denied licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the same reason.
Crawford-Browne says activists in South Africa must ensure that there is no backtracking from the government, and that the temporary measure becomes more permanent.
Job losses vs war-crimes
South African weapons companies are arguing that the NCACC's increased oversight and enforcement of regulations will result in Saudi Arabia, UAE and others buying their weapons from India, China and other willing (and less scrupulous) sellers.
The Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association of South Africa (AMD) says the dispute could cause the loss of thousands of jobs at defence firms and supporting industries, threatening the defence sector's survival.
Read more: Yemen in Focus: Pirates of the Arabian? Houthis seize Saudi vessel in latest peace blunder
AMD executive director, Simphiwe Hamilton, is proud of the conduct of post-apartheid South Africa's defence industry.
"In the past 25 years of the new South African arms export history, this country and its industry have never once been found wanting or to have violated any United Nations regulations in relation to human rights or to have traded in a manner that was not compliant and thus detrimental to human rights...
"This is adequate proof that the South African arms control regime and systems are not only functional but also that they meet the highest international and moral standards," Hamilton wrote recently.
South Africa will have to find a way to balance its economic priorities with its commitment to human rights and international law.
|South Africa will have to find a way to balance its economic priorities with its commitment to human rights|
Despite the well-documented humanitarian destruction, the NCACC continued to grant South African arms dealers licenses to supply Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons for a campaign characterised by human rights violations, including war crimes according to the United Nations.
Under the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty - which South Africa ratified in 2014 - it has an obligation to halt the supply of weapons if these are likely to be used for serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
If South Africa's weapons industry is to retain its proud record, then it must stop arming countries committing war-crimes.
In February, Amnesty International found that the UAE was acquiring arms and illicitly diverting it to militias in Yemen that are known to be committing war crimes. A CNN investigation a few days later showed how Saudi Arabia and the UAE had transferred American weapons to Yemeni fighters, breaking the terms of their arms sales with the United States.
Armed with this knowledge, and previous experiences, how can South Africa continue to supply weapons to these two countries?
In doing so, we will destroy our legacy of internationalism and a just foreign and defence policy.
Suraya Dadoo is a South African writer based in Johannesburg.
Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.