Menu Close

Mischief-making in Pretoria-Washington foreign policy and trade

Add to my bookmarks

Share This Article:

Picture: REUTERS/Esa Alexander – Lady R’ docks at Simon’s Town Naval Base, in Cape Town, South Africa, December 7, 2022.

By Patrick Bond

During a “fog of war” and its accompanying military racket, it is entirely predictable for South African politicians to have a go at seeding the clouds of doubt.

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana was among the most evasive last Sunday when deflecting the US claim that South Africans loaded weaponry destined for Russia on the ship Lady R in December 2022: “If it did happen as the Americans claim, it could be a conduct of people who were mischief makers.”

Who would make mischief from lethal arms dealing, and what are the broader economic implications?

Consider some suspects.

The first, is the world’s leading military profiteer: the US. In spite of White House and State Department rhetoric about the “battle between democracies and autocracies”, the latter is favoured arms customers by President Joseph Biden’s administration.

As The Intercept’s Stephen Semler concluded this week after reviewing 2022 data, Biden “has helped increase the military power of a large number of authoritarian countries. The US sold weapons to at least 57% of the world’s autocratic countries in 2022”. The likes of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt top the list. In the process, reported Axios, “The US accounted for 40% of the total (arms) exports from 2018- 2022, up from 33% in the previous five years, while Russia declined from 22% to 16%”.

Other military mischief-makers include South Africa’s own arms dealers, led by Denel and the Paramount Group. Deputy head of the ANC international relations sub-committee Obed Bapela recently claimed on SAfm radio: “I was with the management of Denel. I was there last Friday.

Denel has not been in production for the past three years.” In reality, Rheinmetall-Denel Munitions (RDM) is a major joint venture in Somerset West which has been producing and selling deadly weaponry in recent weeks.

While it denies providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with his tools of destruction, according to Defence-Web, there has been “an uptick in business, most likely due to the war in Ukraine. In December last year, for example, RDM announced a Nato country order for 155mm Assegai ammunition”.

RDM managing director Jan-Patrick Helmsen bragged: “We’re very pleased that two customers – including a Nato member state and a non-Nato country– have again placed their trust in our globally proven Assegai indirect fire technology.”

Rheinmetall was once Adolf Hitler’s number two arms supplier and also had no misgivings about selling to the apartheid regime.

Indeed, there have been prolific South African military sales to Nato countries, including seven major buyers in 2021/22, reports Armscor in last year’s annual report. Its chair- person, Phillip Dexter, is explicitly committed to the “commercialisation” of arms acquisition services, and while the parastatal has oversight duties with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), the system is profoundly flawed.

Germany and Britain were leading consumers of South African-made arms in 2021/22, buying weapons that may well find their way to the Russia-Ukraine battleground, on the West’s side. The US was also a buyer. In 2021, Open Secrets and Lawyers for Human Rights drew up a depressing list of NCACC fails, including allowing South African weapons into Yemen via Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as documented in their “Profiting from Misery” report.

Johannesburg-based Ivor Ichikowitz runs the Paramount Group, whose Mbombe armoured vehicles found their way into war-torn Libya via Jordan in 2019. He believes in pleasing all sides engaged in war, for as he wrote last year, “Russia, long a player in Africa through its military and political support of liberation movements, and latterly through providing defence material and military advisers to many independent coun- tries, embarked on a deliberate charm offensive in July in the wake of its disastrous invasion of Ukraine.”

And this year, Ichikowitz enthused further in New African, “despite the worldwide condemnation of his country’s current invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s top diplomat places priority on Russian-African ties. Last year’s $20-bn in trade between Russia and Africa would suggest as much; it is a marked 17% increase over the previous year, but still a fraction of the commitment other powers are making, and with fewer strings attached”.

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Putin had a friendly call to “intensify mutually beneficial ties in various fields”. Earlier, international relations department spokesperson Clayson Monyela likewise applauded the “mutually beneficial and cordial relationship that exists between the United States of America and South Africa” while expressing “utter dis- pleasure” with US ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety’s outburst, especially his caustic May 11 remark about the Lady R’s cargo: “We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”

Brigety’s assuredness reminds me of the late, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who bet (and lost) one million Iraqi lives on a confident claim that Saddam Hussein’s prolific Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) justified the 2003 US invasion. No, Washington’s occupying troops never located those WMDs.

Likewise, the fog of war requires Godongwana to reiterate, as he did in Parliament this week, that “our policy is not to sell arms or ammunition to any party in the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” for he fears South Africa’s imminent exclusion from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.

But if that happens, we can anticipate major Western Multinational Corporations – the more damaging version of “WMC” – having to dramatically cut back production in their South African plants, especially of exported automobiles (of which the US imported $1.6 billion duty-free under AGOA in 2022), metals and minerals ($463m), agricultural products ($458m), and chemicals ($360m).

These are South Africa’s most capital-intensive sectors and their outputs are the greatest in terms of CO2 and methane emissions, contributing to climate crises such as the April-May 2022 “Durban Rain bombs” that killed 500 people or Cyclone Freddy that felled more than 1000 Malawians a few weeks ago.

Regardless of AGOA, these companies will soon attract European climate sanctions under the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism because of their extremely high embedded CO2 emissions.

Moreover, the Energy-Intensive Users Group’s 27 companies guzzle 40% of South Africa’s electricity, mostly for these exports. In some cases, especially BHP Billiton’s South32 aluminium smelter in Richards Bay,

the electricity price is only a small fraction of what ordinary people pay, and that smelter alone uses at least 5% of the national grid’s supply.

Calls to redistribute the aluminium smelter’s electricity to the rest of the economy were made by Standard Bank chief executive Derek Cooper during the initial load-shedding of 2008 and by Business Day columnist Michael Avery last year but were not heeded.

So, if The US ends AGOA and the result is more electricity available to small businesses and ordinary households, it would be an economic blessing in disguise – in the same way the greylisting of South African banks by the Financial Action Task Force in February has already had a positive impact on legislation and regulation against money-laundering. But beneficial processes for the majority of South Africans continue to be disguised by war-mongering mischief-makers – for whom neutrality is a fiction in a war with many more components (and arms purchasers) than they would be comfortable revealing.

*Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.