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October 2000
Vol. 12, No. 5 (A)


The Armaments Corporation of South Africa, better known as Armscor, was tasked by law in 1968 by South Africa's apartheid government to develop and produce armaments.3 It is today housed in a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Pretoria, shared with the Ministry of Defence, that was built in the 1970s to accommodate the corporation's expanding activities.

During the apartheid years, South Africa, hit by an international arms embargo, developed its armaments industry by circumventing the sanctions.4 Covert channels and networks that had allowed the apartheid regime to smuggle in military technology for its infant industry also proved to be viable conduits for a South African weapons trade once domestic arms production started to exceed national requirements.5 This trend accelerated after 1982when, in order to secure economies of scale and promote returns to its isolated and therefore vulnerable defense industry, the government decided to prioritize the promotion of arms exports.6 A prominent member of the National Party, the apartheid-era ruling party (which in 2000 merged with its former opposition, the Democratic Party, to become the Democratic Alliance), summarized the defense establishment's philosophy: "You cannot be idealistic: if you manufacture a weapon, you must be reconciled with the idea that the weapon will be used. The bottom line is that countries are going to buy arms and if you have the capability of manufacturing them, you will export them."7

Under the National Party government, Armscor was charged both with developing and promoting the sale of South African arms and at the same time controlling arms transfers.8 This blatant conflict of interest warped South Africa's arms trade from the beginning.9 Policy orientation to guide Armscor's export thrust was contained in secret documents known as "Log Pamphlets." Prospective clients for South African weapons were divided into three broad categories: the first group of countries would encounter no restriction in access to weapons targeted for marketing; the second group could only receive "non-sensitive" items; while access to South African weaponry was prohibited to the countries that fell into the third group.10

While these classifications might suggest restraint, in practice, Armscor was left wide latitude to pursue clients and markets that might have been shunned by more fastidious arms exporters. Armscor was also provided with a massive secret budget with which to circumvent sanctions.11 South African weapons were sold to countries in which some of the worst human rights abuses in the world were occurring: governments or opposition forces in Angola, Haiti, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan were at one time or another considered legitimate recipients of South African weapons.12 The need for secrecy arising from sanctions, South Africa's pariah status, and the instability of the southern African region fostered a siege mentality in an industry whose arms exports directions mirrored the immorality of domestic policy.13

By the time the country held its first multiracial democratic elections in April 1994, South Africa had established itself as the tenth largest arms producer in the world with approximately 800 arms and arms component manufacturers employing a workforce of 50,000 (down from 160,000 in the 1980s). Exports accounted for about one percent of global arms trade, or the equivalent in sales in excess of R.800 million (U.S.$225,000).14

3 Armaments Development and Production Act, Act 57 of 1968. Section 3(1) of this law states that the objectives of the corporation shall be to meet as effectively and economically as may be feasible, the armaments requirements of the Republic, including armaments required for export. See "Guide to the Terms of Reference of Conventional Arms Control in South Africa" (Pretoria: Directorate of Conventional Arms Control Office of the Secretary of Defence, May 1, 1996), p. 3. South Africa came to excel in the production of long-range artillery systems, laser-designated missiles, aircraft electronic warfare systems, tactical radios, anti-radiation bombs, battlefield mobility systems, attack helicopters, and mine-protected and mine-detection vehicles. See Armscor, Annual Report 1997/98 (Pretoria: 1998); Frank Smyth, "Deadly Opportunities," Multinational Monitor (May 14, 1994), pp. 13-5; and Timothy C. Hendrickson, Robert L. O' Connell, "Weapons Acquisition Strategy South Africa (U)," a study by the U.S. Department of Defense, prepared by the Foreign Science and Technology Center, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, November 1992. Obtained by Human Rights Watch through a Freedom of Information Act Request. 4 Sanctions were imposed following the death in custody of anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko in September 1977. U.N. Security Council, Resolution 418, November 4, 1977, on South Africa marked the first time that the U.N. Security Council imposed mandatory sanctions against a member state under the power of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Resolution 418 called on member states to stop the supply to South Africa of arms and related matériel, including police equipment and spare parts. It further demanded that the provision of all types of equipment and supplies and grants of licensing arrangements for the manufacture and maintenance of such equipment also cease. With Resolution 558 of December 13, 1984, the U.N. Security Council requested states to refrain from importing weapons from South Africa. On November 28, 1986, with Resolution 591, the Security Council urged all states to prohibit the export to South Africa of items that might build South Africa's military capacity. These items included aircraft, aircraft engines and parts, electronic and telecommunication equipment, computers, and four-wheel drive vehicles. 5 Human Rights Watch interview with a former covert operative, Johannesburg, February 10, 1999; Timothy C. Hendrickson, Robert L. O' Connell, "Weapons Acquisition Strategy South Africa (U)." 6 Commission of Inquiry into Alleged Arms Transactions Between Armscor and One Eli Wazan and Other Related Matters, Second Report (Cape Town: November 20, 1995), p. 9. Armscor operated through more than one hundred front organizations that had originally been set up to acquire advanced technology for the development of arms. Garth Shelton, "South Africa's arms industry: exports will determine the future," Global Dialogue, vol. 4.2 (August 1999), p.19. 7 Human Rights Watch interview with Boy Geldenhuys, Pretoria, January 28, 1999. 8 Armaments Development and Production Act, Act 57 of 1968, Section 3(2) (IA) states that Armscor's mandate requires the corporation to exercise control over the development, manufacture, acquisition, supply, export, or marketing of armaments. "Guide to the Terms of Reference," p. 13. 9 In a move intended to enhance the commercial viability of arms manufacturing, the government in 1992 separated the corporation from its manufacturing partner, Denel, thus effectively limiting Armscor's mandate to that of a procurement and export agent without addressing the unusual concentration of power in Armscor's hands. 10 A similar three-tiered classification system addressed categories of weapons and set limits on their export. Weapons were divided into category A, comprising "sensitive" armaments that could be utilized in an offensive role and might offer a strategic advantage to the user; category B, embracing "non-sensitive" equipment such as vehicles, radios, anti-riot matériel, and weapons and ammunition not exceeding 12.7mm; and category C, encompassing products that could not be released for marketing due to the sensitivity of their foreign content, or because they were still in the stage of development, or else they held a strategic advantage or disadvantage for South Africa. See also Commission of Inquiry, Second Report, pp. 9-10. 11 Garth Shelton, "South Africa's arms industry," p. 19. 12 Commission of Inquiry, Second Report, pp. 15-16. 13 See Commission of Inquiry, Second Report, p.17. 14 Garth Shelton, "South African Arms Sales to North Africa and the Middle East: Promoting Peace or Fueling the Arms Race?" Foundation for Global Dialogue Occasional Paper, no.16, published jointly by the Middle East and South Asia Project, University of the Witwatersrand and the Foundation for Global Dialogue, October 1998, pp. 2-3. See also Accadoga Chiledi,"New Role for Arms Industry," InterPress Service, November 22, 1994, and James Brew, "A Brisk Little Weapons Business," Electronic Mail and Guardian,, April 27, 1997.

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