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UNITED NATIONS, Dec 11 2013 (IPS) - When the white apartheid regime in South Africa kept the overwhelming majority of blacks under military repression, the country’s security forces were armed with weapons originating mostly from a highly-developed domestic armaments industry.
The wide-ranging locally-made weapons – some of which were categorised as crowd-control equipment – included transport and attack helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, military trucks, internal security vehicles, assault rifles, hand guns and tear gas canisters.
Proving the resilience of its arms industry, South Africa was quick to respond to a United Nations request last October for three attack helicopters and two utility helicopters to strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Nicole Auger, a military analyst covering Middle East/Africa at Forecast International, a leader in defence market intelligence, told IPS “the South African military industry really took shape in the 1980s and got to the point where its technical capability and design and production abilities were among the most advanced in the world.”
After the 1994 election, when Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) assumed power, industry developments slowed, notably due to the decrease in defence spending and the lack of immediate security threats, she added.
Still the South African arms industry is considered one of the most advanced in the non-Western world today, and very much in the company of its IBSA partners, India and Brazil.
The industry dates back to the apartheid regime when its rapid development was necessitated by two key factors: battling a domestic insurgency and circumventing a 1977 mandatory arms embargo imposed by the U.N.
Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher, Arms Transfers Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told IPS the South African arms industry is advanced in a few niche areas such as certain light armoured vehicles and anti-tank missiles.
“But overall, it has become increasingly a part of the global arms industry acting as subcontractors and supplying military components for complete systems elsewhere.”
He said South Africa currently supplies weapons and other military equipment to many countries throughout the world, from the United States to China, and from Sweden to Zambia.
The U.S. was a one-time major client because it urgently needed mine-protected armoured vehicles for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
South Africa was the world leader in the production of such vehicles, he added, including the Casspir. This dated back to the apartheid regime when the South African armed forces had to learn how to fight guerrilla forces in Zimbabwe and Namibia, which were then known as Rhodesia and South-West Africa, respectively.
South Africa was also on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power with its well-developed clandestine programme to produce weapons of mass destruction – even while it remained ostracised by the global community.
South Africa’s nuclear weapon programme was successful in producing seven weapons which were eventually destroyed under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, told IPS that South Africa has the unique distinction of being the only country to have abandoned its nuclear weapons programme voluntarily – setting an example for other nuclear-armed states.
In 1991, South Africa joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state after destroying the weapons it had developed in a clandestine programme during 1974-1990, allegedly with Israeli collusion, he pointed out.
“President [F.W.] de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the late Nelson Mandela, told me he was kept in the dark about the nuclear weapons programme until he became president when he decided to halt the programme,” said Dhanapala, one of the world’s best-known authorities on nuclear disarmament.
He said it was fitting the treaty declaring the whole continent of Africa a nuclear weapon free zone should be named the Treaty of Pelindaba, named after the place where the South African nuclear weapon programme was located.
Auger told IPS the U.N. arms embargo was one of the defining drivers for the South African defence-industrial base.
Before the embargo, defence firms would only acquire licence-production agreements from other countries so there was minimal drive to develop its own fully indigenous weapons.
But the 1977 arms embargo provided the incentive for South African firms to research and develop its own weapons so that it could become self-sufficient, she added.
The South African arms industry was led by Denel and the government’s arms procurement organisation, ARMSCOR.
Prior to the embargo, South Africa produced most of its military equipment under licence-production agreements with countries such as France, Germany, Israel and Italy.
Wezeman said arms exports were an issue of debate during the 1990s with some people questioning the morality of selling tools of repression created by the former apartheid regime.
“I am not sure what Mandela’s role was in this, but I think he was critical,” he noted.
“In any case the new ANC government quickly set out to support the industry for the same reason as other arms-producing states: as a source of income, a catalyst for technological development and even hoped it could be used as a foreign policy instrument, in particular in Africa,” said Wezeman.
It never became the latter, he said, because South Africa is a rather minor player as an arms supplier on the continent.
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