Arms and Mandela: After the Honeymoon, He Faces the Deadly Dilemmas of South Africa’s Arms Industry

THE LITTLE-NOTICED role of South African-made arms in the catastrophe of Rwanda presents Nelson Mandela with an early test of his ability to reconcile realism and idealism. At least 3,000 of Rwanda’s soldiers and militiamen carry South African-made R-4 automatic rifles. Rwanda bought them in 1992 from Armscor — South Africa’s state-owned arms corporation — along with 10,000 hand grenades, 20,000 rifle grenades, 10,000 launching grenades and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition.

In Rwanda’s killing fields, such grenades and automatic rifles have been weapons of choice, after machetes. At the Christ Spirituality Center in Kigali, soldiers opened fire with automatic rifles, killing five diocesan priests, nine congregated women, three Jesuits and their cook. In Rukara, journalists came upon about 500 corpses inside a church. One supervisor said the people had died when militiamen threw dozens of grenades inside the people.

Will the new South Africa sell arms to countries like Rwanda? Mandela, with his international reputation as a peacemaker, may not want to. But the United Nations trade embargo against South Africa is expected to be lifted soon and new markets are already opening up for South Africa’s deadliest goods. Andre Buys, an executive for Armscor, told Defense News last month that “we expect that by 1996 [arms] exports will at least double, and possibly quadruple.”

Like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia before him, Mandela may find that his humanitarian impulses are not strong enough to resist the financial attractions of the arms trade. When Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he promised to end arms exports. But last year, after the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both renewed sales.

Before Mandela’s inauguration, ANC spokesman Madala Mthembu carefully suggested that the post-apartheid government would not abstain from the arms business. “Once the new government is up and running, we will welcome a complete lifting of all remaining sanctions and embargoes against South Africa,” Mthembu told Defense News. “We also wish to state the new government will be in full compliance with international standards governing exports of technologies and materials that would threaten world security.”

Such standards would preclude arms sales to states like Lybia, which is also currently subject to a U.N. embargo. But states like Rwanda before its present crisis would still be able to legally buy arms. Ethnic strife, which plagues much of the world, makes for a boom market in the weapons trade. And South African weapons are generally more reliable, accurate and durable than comparable arms made by Egypt, Russia, Romania, and even Israel in some categories. While the world rejoices in witnessing apartheid’s downfall, it will have the unexpected effect of adding to the glut of arms already flooding the places that least need them, such as Rwanda, Sudan and Cambodia.

No one expects Mandela to turn his back on what promises to become one of the new South Africa’s best earners of foreign exchange. But few would expect, either, a man who has devoted his life to his country’s struggle for justice, equality, and human rights to turn his back on future victims of other abusive regimes. He doesn’t necessarily have to.

South Africa can afford to forgo sales of guns and grenades because it actually makes most of its profits from the sale of expensive, high technology systems like laser-designated missiles, tactical radios, anti-radiation bombs and battlefield mobility systems. This sort of weaponry, while potentially deadly, is much less likely to be used in human rights abuses than small arms.

In anticipation of an end to the U.N. embargo, South Africa created the Denel Corp. in 1992. While Armscor has since served as the government’s defense procurement organization, Denel has operated as a private manufacturing consortium, representing 60 percent of the arms industry. Denel expects to lead export sales; such sales averaged $127.5 million in the early 1990s, and increased to $222.2 million in 1993. Rwanda’s purchase of $5.9 million of grenades, mortars and ammunition from Denel made only a tiny addition to South Africa’s balance sheet.

South Africa also has a technological edge in land mine detection and sweeping equipment especially needed by Cambodia and other countries. While South Africa has already begun to market this equipment, it announced in March that it would not sell land mines at the same time, and stopped exports. Although it could be argued that this announcement was motivated more by appearance than principle, it was a welcome sign.

But Mandela and the ANC’s stated policy isn’t good enough. Exporting minesweeping equipment is a legitimate way to earn foreign exchange; sales of any arms to human rights violators are not. The new South Africa should re-examine its export policy on such items. International prohibitions against arms sales to abusive regimes are at present nonexistent or weak. Rwanda, with its long-documented history of ethnic strife and its grisly record of human rights abuses, is a case in point. Rather than sink to this standard, Mandela should lead the world in raising it up.