South Africa open for arms business

May 27, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Just hours after the United Nations lifted its arms embargo, South Africa announced that its impressive armaments industry was open for business.

The word came yesterday at a news conference in the sleek headquarters of Armscor, the operation formed in the 1970s to prop up apartheid after international arms sanctions were imposed.

Armscor helped South Africa build one of the largest defense industries in the world, enabling it to supply a military that dominated the region. Under-the-table contacts with a variety of countries gave it access to cutting-edge technology and provided a small export market.

Over-the-table exports have been building in the last four years as South Africa emerged from isolation after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC). President Mandela's inauguration two weeks ago paved the way for Wednesday's lifting of the final embargo, imposed by the United Nations.

"One of the most exciting aspects of the lifting of the arms boycott is the prospect of substantially increasing the exports of defense equipment," said Tielman de Waal, Armscor's executive general manager.

According to Armscor figures, South African weapons exports now total about $23 million a year.

Projections show that exports could more than double, to $50 million this year.

Mr. Mandela expressed approval for the increase of military exports in a recent interview.

"Arms are for the purpose of defending the sovereignty and integrity of a country," Mr. Mandela said. "From that angle, there is nothing wrong in having trade in arms."

Mr. Mandela needs arms exports to finance his extensive development programs.

Some ANC officials said initially that social programs could be financed by cutting the country's military budget, but those savings have proven as elusive as the post-Cold War peace dividend forecast in the United States.

In fact, since South Africa began making peace with its neighbors in the late 1980s, it has cut defense spending almost in half. If anything, military allocations are expected to increase in the next few years as the new National Defense Force absorbs personnel from the various liberation armies.

According to Mr. de Waal, the number of defense industry jobs has dropped from 150,000 in 1989 to 70,000. Armscor figures show that 15,000 of those jobs are export-related. If arms sales increase as projected, another 20,000 jobs will be added to an economy just beginning to emerge from a decade-long recession.

South Africa is expected to do well in the arms market for a variety of reasons. For one, government subsidies over the last 15 years have allowed it to build a sophisticated weapons industry.

The Rooivalk, or "Red Falcon," helicopter is considered the equal ofany in the world and is competing for a lucrative British military contract. Armored vehicles are also expected to attract buyers.

Another important selling point is that South Africa will be offering battle-proven equipment; most weapons were used in its wars in Namibia and Angola.

Mr. de Waal noted that South Africa developed highly mobile weapons for fighting those bush wars, just the type of equipment that many countries are looking for.

"This equipment is designed to move a force hundreds of kilometers in a very short period," he said. "This high mobility should apply in any country in the world."

Mr. de Waal said that South Africa would be a good citizen in the arms-dealing world, abiding by all treaties that govern such conduct.

He said that South Africa has not been selling arms to Zaire because it is believed that military weapons headed there actually are destined for Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola.

Armscor officials said that South Africa stopped selling weapons to Rwanda in October, months before international bodies called for such a cutoff. Over the past five years, South Africa had sold about $30 million in arms to Rwanda, but canceled another $12 million in contracts.

Mr. de Waal said that South Africa will attempt to sell arms to countries with deeper pockets, especially growth areas in the Far East and Middle East, as well as the European market.

Mr. de Waal said Armscor also hopes for "humanitarian" exports to its neighbors in Angola and Mozambique, supplying sophisticated equipment designed to detect and destroy the thousands of land mines that now infest those countries.

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