Public has right to know if SA sold weapons to rogue regimes

2nd September 2009 By: Idasa, an African Democracy Institute

The debate on South Africa's arms trade is once again in the spotlight. The Democratic Alliance's David Maynier has informed the House of his serious concerns regarding possible weapons transactions involving countries with very dubious human rights records, such as Libya and North Korea. There might also be an arms deal pending with neighbouring Zimbabwe.

It's a pity that African National Congress (ANC) members on the defence and military veterans' Committee as well as its chairperson, Nyami Booi, chose to shoot the messenger. We do not know where Maynier got the Information but if the committee has an instinct towards transparency and accountability, it would require explanations from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) as to precisely which arms sales it has approved.

The National Conventional Arms Control Act, of 2002, as amended last year, regulates conventional arms trade in South Africa. Generally, the act prohibits SA from selling arms to governments that violate and suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms. SA prohibited from selling arms "likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger destabilizing military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability. (or) may be used for purposes other than the legitimate defence and security needs of the government of the country of import".

This piece of legislation had a very difficult birth and the context now appears all the more relevant. In 2002, it was then Defence committee chairwomen, Thandi Modise who offered the most principled positions on this legislation. Laurie Nathan, with the often embattled Modise, tried boldly to secure that the legislation gave Parliament prospective oversight over any arms transactions as and when the NCACC was considering applications or permits. In an earlier version of the Bill, such a clause was to be found. But by August 2002, when the National Assembly debated in the bill, the clause had been excised. This was in no small part due to the tussle between the then chair of the NCACC, Kader Asmal, and Modise. Modise and others fought a valiant battle but lost. Parliament was left with diminished powers, enabling it to merely comment once the horse had bolted and the deals had been approved.

Not long after the tussle with Asmal, Modise found herself in the political wilderness and redeployed as Speaker of a far-flung legislature.This is an important part of the puzzle in the debate which Maynier has sought to revive.

The lines of accountability appear to have been broken further given that the NCACC committee's last report to Parliament was in 2005. These reports have been marked 'confidential' and so their contents are unknown. The chairman of the NCACC, Jeff Radebe, has denied that South Africa has sold arms to any country under the United Nations arms embargo. Naledi Pandor another member of the NCACC has said that a report will soon be ready for Parliament's scrutiny. It is hoped that the report will receive the scrutiny it deserves from all sides of the political divide. Thus far the ANC MPs on the Defence committee have shown themselves to be eager to crucify Maynier. One MP was even reported to have said that Maynier should be 'removed' as a committee member. On what basis and by which procedure? It was also reported that Booi had threatened that to involve the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Again, on what basis and with what mandate? These are important questions since our intelligence agencies appear rotten and are not averse to fighting political battles.

The Defence committee should be insisting that the NCACC reports of 2005 and 2006 be dealt with and examining all approved deals and making that information public. If Parliament is serious about its oversight role, Booi's committee will be making every effort to obtain full disclosure from the NCACC. The public has the right to know whether its government has exchanged principle for the dirty lucre, which comes from selling arms to rogue regimes.

Written by: Judith February, head of Idasa's Political Information and Monitoring Service (PIMS), and Nonhlanhla Chanza, a Political researcher within PIMS
This article first appeared in the Business Day, Monday, 31st August 2009.