Displaying items by tag: South Africa - Afro-Middle East Centre

By Ramzy Baroud

On 16 September, I visited South Africa, a country where many Palestinians have always felt welcomed, if not overwhelmed by the degree of genuine and meaningful solidarity. While having the honour to address many audiences in six major cities, I have also learned a great deal. An important and sobering lesson is that while apartheid laws can be dismissed in a day, economic apartheid and massive inequality can linger on for many years. Thanks to my interactions with many South African intellectuals, activists and ordinary folk, I learned not to romanticise the South African struggle, a crucial lesson for those of us fighting to end Israeli apartheid in Palestine. 

My hosts at the Afro-Middle East Centre ensured that I met with diverse audiences, including top members of the African National Congress, the leadership of the country’s two major trade union federations, anti-apartheid scholars and activists, and a large number of students and other people throughout the country.

The main, obvious, conclusion from all these meetings and interactions is that South Africans are serious about their solidarity with Palestine, and that they see themselves as partners in the Palestinian struggle for justice and peace. While South Africans are always ready to take their solidarity with Palestine to a whole new level, however, there is a general feeling that decisive political moves can prove costly for South Africa.

True, the South African government has taken several steps in the right direction. On 14 May 2018, Pretoria recalled its ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, to protest the killing of hundreds of unarmed protesters taking part in the Great March of Return in besieged Gaza. On 5 April 2019, it began to actively downgrade its ties with Israel, in response to a call made by the ANC conference in December 2017.

While these steps are significant, South Africa is yet to take the kind of action that, when combined with others measures of international solidarity, could finally force Israel to dismantle its system of Apartheid in Palestine. The problem is not the lack of willingness nor that of diplomatic doublespeak. There is a growing, and justifiable, sense that Arab governments no longer see the liberation of Palestine as a common objective. While the Arab peoples remain committed in their support of Palestinians, Arab governments have fallen into warring camps and political divisions. 

Yet, a top ANC leader told me that South Africa’s policy regarding Palestine is guided by the agendas of the Arab League and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Sadly, neither the Arab League nor the PLO are serving the roles they were entrusted with decades ago. The former is mired in divisions, and the latter has been effectively replaced by the provisional, factional Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Using ineffectual organizations as a legal and moral frame of reference is hurting South Africa’s chances of converting its solidarity with Palestine into tangible political assets. 

The other dilemma is that the African continent itself is no longer united regarding Palestine. Israel has successively driven a wedge between African countries, which, at one point, were united in their unconditional support of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli military occupation and Apartheid. 

Israel’s successes in Africa, especially through the penetration of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have made Tel Aviv a political player on the African continent. Boosted by the welcome he received from various African leaders, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to hold the ‘Israel-Africa Summit’ in October 2017. Thanks to the efforts of African countries like South Africa and Algeria, the conference was postponed indefinitely. 

If Israel continues to score political victories while facing little resistance, however, it will eventually dominate the African continent. The absurdity of this goes beyond the struggle in Palestine. A continent that was ravaged by colonialism, racism and apartheid should not embrace the likes of Israel, the exemplification of the very ills that have cost Africa so dearly for hundreds of years. 

In fact, the issue of solidarity with Palestine and the pressing need to block Israel’s scourges in Africa are intrinsically linked. In this very link, South Africa can find a way to reclaim its natural role as a vanguard against racism and apartheid everywhere. 

My suggestion to the ANC was that South Africa should update its frame of reference, moving away from tired clichés of a defunct, two-state solution and such, to a whole new way of thinking. And it should not go about doing it alone; all of Africa and all Palestinians should be part of this effort. 

I strongly believe that South Africa is ready to counter Israel’s efforts on the continent by initiating an Africa-Palestine Conference, a major gathering that aims to harness all the solidarity for the Palestinian people throughout all African countries. Whether such a conference is held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) or independently by a single member state (or even a political party), the gathering of like-minded African and Palestinian leaders, parliamentarians, scholars and civil society leaders can develop a new frame of reference, which South Africa, the African continent, and, in fact, the rest of the world can use as a guiding principle of new thinking on Palestine. Based on the call made by Palestinian civil society in 2005 to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, the Palestinian people have been demanding and expecting this new thinking for at least fifteen years. 

Those who might find the idea that Africa can lead the way on forming a new, global understanding on Palestine far-fetched need to remember that it was the Organization of African Unity’s resolution 77 (XII) of August 1975 that recognised and condemned the ‘organic link’ between ‘the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa’. That very resolution served as a major frame of reference used in UN Resolution 3379 of November 1975, which determined that ‘Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination’.

Africa must reclaim its position as a global leader in the fight against racism and apartheid, and South Africa is very qualified to spearhead these efforts, because, after all, as iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela once said, ‘We all know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’

*Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His most recent book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. In September 2019, he spent ten days in South Africa on a book tour hosted by the Afro-Middle East Centre

Peace Vigil co-founder Shirin recently interviewed Na’eem Jeenah, a well-known South African academic who has written widely on Palestine and Israel. He is the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg. The new President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has categorically stated that the South African government will end diplomatic relations with Israel over its actions in Palestine. This interview with Na’eem Jeenah is helpful to understand the situation.

By Diana Block

Reaffirming Internationalism in the Twenty-first Century

In March 2019 I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend a conference – Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice. The conference was co-sponsored by the AMED (Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies) program of San Francisco State University (SFSU), AMEC (Afro-Middle East Centre) in Johannesburg, the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, and An-Najah University, in occupied Palestine.

 Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Director of the AMED program, had initiated the Teaching Palestine project in 2016, ahead of the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s imperialist Balfour Declaration, as an emancipatory pedagogical and advocacy project that would be conducted in multiple sites over a number of years around the world. An integral concept of the project is the “indivisibility of justice.” This framing affirms the integral connections between the struggle for Palestinian freedom and other current struggles against oppression worldwide. It offers a basis for engaging internationalism holistically in an era when global struggles are too often siloed or artificially separated by narrow organizational missions. Since it was initiated, Teaching Palestine has organized workshops and symposia in the U.S. ,Cuba, Seville, Spain, and Montreal. The first Teaching Palestine conference took place in 2018 at Birzeit and An-Najah National Universities in occupied Palestine. Given their closely interconnected histories and ongoing solidarity relationships, it made sense to hold the second international conference in South Africa.

I had traveled to Southern Africa nearly forty years earlier, in April 1980, for the celebration of Zimbabwean independence. I had been part of organizations working with the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) in the United States. ZANU was fighting for the national liberation of the Zimbabwean people from the white supremacist regime that held power in what the settlers called Rhodesia, after colonist Cecil Rhodes. The victory over Ian Smith’s regime was a thrilling culmination of years of struggle by the Zimbabwean people who were supported by a vigorous international solidarity movement. To those of us in that movement, Zimbabwe’s independence signaled the inevitable future downfall of apartheid in South Africa. And the struggles against white supremacy in Zimbabwe and South Africa were part and parcel of the struggle for Black liberation against white supremacy within the borders of the United States. Southern Africa was a focal point for anti-imperialist struggle throughout the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and worldwide.

Forty years later Zimbabwe and South Africa, in different ways, are still struggling to fulfill the liberatory promises of independence. Given the consolidation of the neoliberal world order under U.S. hegemony in the final decades of the twentieth century and the collusion of the new national ruling parties and elites with neoliberalism, these newly independent African countries have faced monumental external and internal challenges. Within the U.S., Southern Africa has largely disappeared from the movement’s political map.

Yet anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial/neoliberal struggles have inevitably continued against a global regime of imperialist dispossession, appropriation and exploitation in the twenty-first century. Now Palestine has in many ways become the epicenter of anti-imperialist struggle as it has continued, across the century mark, to confront the Israeli settler colonial, apartheid state and its U.S. partner-in-chief. The growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement since 2005, modeled on the South African boycott movement, demonstrates how the Palestinian movement has skillfully learned from the successful tactics that helped to bring down the South African apartheid regime. A conference on Palestine in South Africa was a means of reaffirming the historic importance of South African struggle and learning about the continuation of efforts to build a different, more equitable and just South African society.

The conference and subsequent study tour addressed the critical role of internationalism for Palestine and South Africa, examined lessons of the South African experience during and after apartheid, and exposed the expanding scope of Zionist assaults on all forms of speech and action in support of Palestine globally.

Ronnie Kasrils, the opening speaker at the conference, was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and the Minister of Intelligence in the South African government between 2004-2008. A South African of Jewish descent, he has also played a leading role throughout his political history in building solidarity with Palestinian liberation. He spoke to the critical importance of an internationalist perspective for the ANC historically. He described their careful study of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and its strategy of people’s war; the influence of victorious movements in Algeria and Cuba on ANC development; and the material support which other national liberation struggles were able to offer South Africa.

Kasrils pointed out the closely intersecting histories of South African and Israeli apartheid. The apartheid government was first elected in South Africa in 1948, the same year as the Israeli Zionist project expelled the Palestinians from their land in the catastrophic Nakba.He highlighted the ways in which the international boycotts and disinvestment campaign became a key pressure tactic against South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, contributing to South Africa’s isolation as an outlaw state. While the majority of the world distanced itself from South Africa, Israel cemented its role as one of South Africa’s main strategic military allies. In 1975 Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime and in 1979 Israel and South Africa collaborated on the test of a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean.

Robin Kelley, distinguished scholar of African-American history and a professor at UCLA, brought the long history of solidarity between the Black radical movement in the U.S. and the Palestinian liberation movement to the conversation. He argued that solidarity was rooted in a politics of shared principles and that it was important for the U.S. movement today to go beyond the politics of “analogy” based solely on a shared experience of oppression. He pointed out that in the 1960’s, it was not enough to have a common experience of oppression. In fact, Black center/right politicians supported Israel while radical Black forces aligned with organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its vision of radical Third World nationalism and a democratic socialist state. “It is not the conditions of captivity, but the critique of captivity and shared visions of liberation that form the basis for real solidarity,” Kelley insisted.

Rabab Abdulhadi contextualized the significance of holding the Teaching Palestine conference in South Africa. “The heroic struggle of the South African people must be learned from despite critiques of the current political situation,” she insisted. She also spoke to the importance of the Teaching Palestine initiative as a means of shifting how Palestine is framed – a departure from a narrative of subjugation, submission and defeat to one of resistance, liberation and solidarity. Though this was the intellectual project she initiated, teaching Palestine has been the praxis of Palestine transnationally as long as the Palestinian resistance has been around. Through education, Palestinians could affirm their history, land and struggle in the face of dispossession and displacement. Today, it is not only critical for Palestinians to know their own history but to also learn from and stand in solidarity with other struggles for liberation.

The need to speak the truth about South African history and dispel sanitized distortions was asserted throughout the conference and study tour. Salim Vally pointed out that the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in April 1994 were a result of a long multi-dimensional struggle. However, the victory is often attributed to a “politics of negotiation and forgiveness,” that gained sway in the period leading up to and after the elections. Such politics are now held up as a model for other struggles such as Palestine despite their problematic impact on South Africa.

As Vally and Jeenah assert in their edited book Pretending Democracy , “For ordinary working-class South Africans, the development of the constitution and the process of ‘reconciliation’ such as it has been, have contributed little or nothing to ending their lives of struggle, misery, poverty and racism.” In his article Martyrs and Reconciliation, Jeenah points out that Zionists often manipulatively advise Palestinians to learn from South Africa’s history of non-violent and peaceful resistance. “We were not peaceful; our struggle was not peaceful! We fought hard, we lost much and we offered up many martyrs in order that we might liberate the people of this country — both black and white.”

Many presenters from South Africa, Palestine and elsewhere reiterated this critique, pointing out that the negotiations that resulted in the 1994 elections involved multiple compromises and the acceptance of a neoliberal economic framework which precluded wealth and land redistribution. Speakers talked about the deep problems of the governing ANC party over the past twenty-five years, exemplified by the pervasiveness of state capture, the term commonly used for government corruption. Within the ANC itself there is a continuing effort to challenge these endemic problems.

Trevor Ngwane, a scholar activist who teaches and conducts research at the University of Johannesburg, pointed out in his presentation during the study tour that the South African constitution exemplifies some of the best aspects of liberal bourgeois legal principles, including democratic and human rights for all, same sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis. Yet when it comes to the socio-economic realities, South Africa is one of the most grossly unequal societies in the world today with unemployment at 40%, land ownership overwhelmingly dominated by whites, and gender violence at crisis proportions.

In a recent article, Ngwane characterizes South Africa as an insurgent democracy because of the ongoing intense level of social movement disruption and protest against the governing status quo by multiple sectors of the South African people. Significant recent protests include the Marikana mineworkers strike of 2012, the #FeesMustFallmovement to decolonize the system of higher education, and the #Total Shutdown movement in 2018 to confront rampant gender violence.

Solidarity with Palestine is also a contested issue in post-apartheid South African society although the government position on Israel is very different than that of the apartheid regime. The ANC and the government it leads have pledged solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and have repeatedly condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the relentless attacks on Gaza. In 2018, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel after Israel’s brutal attacks against the Gaza Great March of Return.

The South African government has also played a role in resisting what Matshidiso Motsoeneng described as Israel’s charm offensive in Africa, a strategy to normalize relationships with African countries across the continent by offering economic support, technological development and military training. South Africa has led the rejection of Israel’s attempts to gain observer status in the African Union which Israel has sought in order to wield more influence in the region.

Civil society and grassroots organizations as well as members of the ANC have consistently pressured the South African government to support the Palestinian struggle. They have called upon the government to sever all diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the Israeli state and to build solidarity in multiple ways. In 2013 Ahmed Kathrada, a leader of the South African Communist Party and a former political prisoner who spent 25 years on Robben Island, initiated an international campaign to free Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouti. Kathrada commented that South Africans “have a sacred duty to campaign for the unconditional release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners as an essential step towards the freedom of the Palestinian people and peace in the region.”

The Palestine Solidarity Alliance, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and BDS South Africa are among a number of groups that consistently organize for Palestine through a variety of tactics, including education and support for BDS. Palestine solidarity activists described the ongoing struggles regarding BDS at universities which bear many similarities to that at U.S. universities. The South African Student Union endorsed BDS in 2011 and in a landmark decision, the University of Johannesburg academic senate voted to end its ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University that same year. In 2017, Tshwane University of Technology, the largest residential higher education institution in South Africa, officially endorsed the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel, and imposed a ban on ties with Israel and Israeli institutions.

On the other hand, Tokelo Nhlapo, a researcher and former graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), explained that he was one of eleven students who were expelled from the University for disrupting an Israeli-funded concert which violated the cultural boycott of Israel. A widespread outrage at this harsh disciplinary action grew at Wits (which resulted in the suspension of the expulsion order). A WITS student leader explained, “Protest is not only an expression that should be protected but protests against Israeli-sponsored events also falls within the principle of internationalism that our country once benefited from. Thousands of students, workers and others protested against Apartheid South Africa sponsored events in the 1980s often disrupting cricket matches, rugby games etc. This international movement of boycotts contributed to our freedom today.”

The Teaching Palestine conference took place against the backdrop of escalating Zionist attacks against speaking and teaching about Palestine worldwide. In the U.S., Zionist groups have recently mounted frontal attacks against Black leaders such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and Michelle Alexander because of their support for Palestinian freedom. Incidents of academic intimidation and suppression regarding support for Palestine continue to increase. Dr. Abdulhadi initiated Teaching Palestine while she was being accused of false charges of antisemitism in a lawsuit filed by the Zionist Lawfare Project in June 2017. The lawsuit was defeated in October 2018 when Federal Judge Orrick ruled that the charges against her had no foundation in fact, but other forms of harassment have continued, including the recent cancellation of AMED’s study abroad program in Palestine.

As I traveled through Germany to South Africa, Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh was banned from speaking at a public meeting in Berlin on March 19th marking International Women’s Day after German officials revoked her visa. The Israeli government claimed credit for the action and the Berlin Senate denounced BDS Berlin, one of the co-hosts of the event, as an “anti-Semitic coalition.” And on March 21, an event where Ronnie Kasril’s was scheduled to speak at the Vienna Museum for Israeli Apartheid Week was canceled for similar reasons. In response Kasrils stated, “South Africa’s apartheid government banned me for life from attending meetings. Nothing I said could be published, because I stood up against apartheid. How disgraceful that, despite the lessons of our struggle against racism, such intolerance continues to this day, stifling free speech on Palestine.”

Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest grandson, confirmed the comparison with South Africa at the International Conference on Palestine held in Istanbul at the end of April. “We say it to the world that as we were able to undermine the apartheid regime in South Africa, we will be able to do this with the apartheid regime in Israel.” He also called for the South African government to use its seat in the UN Security Council to become “the voice of the voiceless and therefore to speak about the self-determination of Palestine.”

For her part, Rabab Abdulhadi is committed to continuing the work, stating. “We will never be silenced nor defeated. We will continue linking communities, critically analyzing the world and advocating for an indivisible sense of justice. We take our inspiration from the people who are struggling for their freedom, dignity and peace in Palestine, South Africa and here in the United States. This is our community of justice and this is why we teach Palestine.”

Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit : A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009). She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the anti- prison coalition CURB. She writes periodically for Counterpunch and other online journals.

by Zeenat Adam

South Africa’s silence regarding human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is conspicuous, as demonstrated in September, when it abstained from voting on a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending the mandate of an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCOargues that such abstentions on human rights issues (there have been others) are ‘in line with government’s policy in the United Nations to abstain on country-specific situations outside the African continent in order not to align South Africa with any particular geopolitical bloc, and to ensure that we retain our ability to adopt independent policy positions in multilateral forums.’ 

In the Yemeni case, it is plausible that South Africa is reluctant to risk losing the $10 billion in investments pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in July. Questions have already been raised about the political, diplomatic and reputational cost of these investments to South Africa. Despite these two states’ notorious human rights records, arms exports from South Africa to both countries have grown since the war began in Yemen, rendering Pretoria possibly complicit in war crimes committed since 2015. Both countries remain the most prolific purchasers of South African weapons.

South Africa’s approach of abstaining from voting on human rights issues in international fora renders it ineffectual and raises the question of why it wants to serve on the UNHRC and the UN Security Council – where it will begin its third two-year non-permanent term in 2019, if it is reluctant to take positions on matters of global importance. The fence-sitting deviates from South Africa’s approach during the Mandela era when it stood as a firm human rights defender on the international stage. In recent years, South African foreign policy seems to have drastically shifted from a human rights foundation to a drive for economic development through foreign investment. Using a mask of economic diplomacy, South Africa thus relinquishes its proclaimed core value of human rights.

For more than three years, the war in poverty-stricken Yemen continued, sparked by Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing control of Yemen’s largest city and then-capital, Sana'a, in September 2014, and their move southwards towards Aden. By March 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the USA launched a military campaign to defeat the Houthis, who have since been supported by Iran. The Saudi-led campaign exacerbated the humanitarian impact of the war through intense aerial bombardments that caused mass civilian casualties; controlling ports of entry in a way that hindered the delivery of food and basic necessities; and creating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.

The United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen released a report in August, in which it stated that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law’. The report covers the period from September 2014 to June 2018, and found that individuals in the Yemeni government and the coalition – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in the de facto authorities (the Houthi) have committed acts that may amount to international crimes. Coalition air strikes, the report asserts, may have been disproportionate and caused the most direct civilian casualties. The chairperson of the panel, Kamel Jendoubi, alleged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia interfered with the work of the panel, despite its attempts to maintain neutrality.    

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Saudi Arabia to end airstrikes in Yemen, and to ensure that the perpetrators of attacks on children are brought to justice, thus adding to the mounting pressure on the coalition. The Panel of Experts’ report highlighted the use of children by all parties as child soldiers. In addition, it provided detailed reports of the use of torture in detention, sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF) reported that outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria and an upsurge in fighting have worsened the dire humanitarian situation, where more than three million people have been displaced since the war began. Over 20 million people need humanitarian assistance. MSF adds that indiscriminate bombings and chronic shortages of supplies and staff have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s health facilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Saudi-led coalition air strikes may be responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths.  Human Rights Watch reported that ‘the armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes hitting civilian objects that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war, with munitions that the US, United Kingdom, and others still supply.’ In September, UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva failed because the Houthi delegation did not attend, citing obstruction in its attempts to travel by the national delegation.

The ‘others’ that HRW refers to includes South Africa. According to annual reports of the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), South Africa supplied arms, ammunition and armoured vehicles, as well as surveillance and military technology to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2016 and 2017, amounting to more than three billion Rands, while the two states were deeply embroiled in Yemen, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Evidence of South African military equipment being used in Yemen by the coalition emerged as early as 2015 when footage was broadcast by Al Masirah news channel of a Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle that had been downed. The images indicate a plate worded: ‘Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.

In August 2018, an attack on a fish market in the port city of Hodeida resulted in the death of at least fifty-five civilians. Indications are that the munition fragments found at the scene resemble 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by the South African arms manufacturer Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM). 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents the global flow of weapons, noted that arms sales to the Middle East increased exponentially between 2013 and 2017, with Saudi Arabia as the largest purchaser in the region, followed closely by the world’s fourth largest arms importer, the UAE. South Africa ranks among UAE’s top arms suppliers for the period 2007-2017.

Despite glaring human rights’ concerns, arms supplying countries like South Africa continue to export weapons to states in the Saudi-led coalition. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act mandates the NCACC to ‘avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and to ‘avoid transfers of conventional weapons that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability’.

Established in 1995, the NCACC is a cabinet committee, uniquely protected, and the appointment of whose members is the sole responsibility of the president. Jeff Radebe, currently the Minister of Energy, has served as the committee’s chairperson since 2009. The committee is supported by an inspectorate that looks after matters of compliance, and a Scrutiny Committee that considers applications submitted by companies seeking to sell arms. The NCACC is required to consult certain government departments regularly, including DIRCO, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the State Security Agency (SSA).Cabinet established an NCACC organisational structure that comprises ‘four accountable levels of responsibility:

  • an initial permit application technical processing level;
  • a multi-departmental review and recommendation process on permit application;
  • a scrutiny and recommendation process by Directors-General; and
  • a control, policy and decision-making authority, which is a Cabinet-approved Committee of Ministers, the NCACC.’

The structure was meant to ensure that authority over South African arms sales would be vested in a senior ministerial caucus rather than in civil servants. The NCACC should meet monthly to consider arms transfer applications. However, the committee seems to have been less serious in its responsibilities in the recent few years, thus allowing loopholes for corruption and unchecked weapons’ transfers. If it has doubt over sales to a particular purchaser, the committee should suspend applications until assessments are conducted by the relevant departments. In such cases, DIRCO and the SSA would monitor the country in question and submit recommendations to the committee, which will then decide to approve or deny the application. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence provides oversight to the committee and is authorised to question its decisions. Radebe and the minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, appeared before the Joint Standing Committee, but their responses to questions on arms’ sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners appeared deflective. Empty promises were made that investigations would be undertaken to determine the reasons for sales to countries where human rights atrocities are perpetrated. The two ministers feigned ignorance of the situation in Yemen and overlooked the culpability of the Saudi coalition.

The $10 billion investment pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also play a role in the arms market. Though the investment is expected to focus mainly on the energy sector, indications are that South Africa’s failing defence industry may get a boost off the back of the energy deals. The link between energy and arms raises a concern about the chairperson of the committee. Because the chairperson is required to be neutral in the deliberation of the committee, the position is usually filled by a minister whose portfolio does not conflict with NCACC decisions. In this case, it is debatable whether the minister of energy’s heading the committee might be regarded as neutral.

Apart from domestic legislation on weapons’ sales, South Africa is also a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, which it ratified in 2014. The conditions of the treaty stipulate, among other things, that the state parties must assess the potential that conventional arms could be used to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. South Africa continues to authorise the sale of conventional weapons that have been used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, despite widely-known allegations, as documented by the UN, of serious violations of international law by members of their coalition in Yemen. Significantly,  Saudi officials themselves claim to have conducted more than 145 000 missions over Yemen in the past three years. One Saudi general estimated that more than 100 000 of those missions were of a combative nature, and that the military had conducted as many as 300 such operations in a single day. 

In addition to the sale of small arms, assault rifles, heavy artillery guns and armoured vehicles, South Africa has supplied the UAE and Saudi Arabia with mortar bombs, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, ammunition, electronic attack systems, software, and a range of other controlled products.

When the Barack Obama administration in the USA declined Saudi Arabia’s request for the supply of Predator drones in 2013, the kingdom turned to South Africa’s Denel Dynamics to assist Riyadh in the development of its own armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme. Denel adapted the Seeker-400 with a range of 250 kilometres and an endurance of 16 hours to carry the Makopa air-to-ground missile and the Impi laser-guided missile, which has a multipurpose warhead suited for assassination missions. By May 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its own combat drone, Saqr 1, which resembled Denel’s design.

In June 2016, South Africa’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, travelled to Saudi Arabia to inaugurate a Saudi Military Industries Corporation facility in Al-Kharjnear Riyadh. He did so together with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is seen as the architect of the war in Yemen. The 240 million dollar projectiles’ factory was built in collaboration with South Africa’s Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, and is expected to produce a minimum of 300 artillery shells or 600 mortar projectiles per day, as well as aircraft bombs ranging from 500lb-2000lb. 

Earlier this year, notorious South African arms dealer, Ivor Ichikowitz, announced that his Paramount Group was in talks with Saudi Arabia with a view to transferring technology and establishing production plants. Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, South African companies may ultimately assist these countries to establish munitions factories that are capable of manufacturing cluster munitions. Both Gulf states have used cluster munitions in the war in Yemen. In transferring its technology, South Africa protects itself from a future legal quagmire that may arise domestically in terms of the NCACC, or, internationally, since it is signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty. It may thus absolve itself of responsibility in case of human rights atrocities committed with the weapons, since they would be manufactured in a country where neither law applies.

MBS is touted as the face of a changing Saudi Arabia and the successor to his father Salman, the king. The young crown prince has consolidated power in himself by violently rooting out dissidents and family members and seizing control of key ministries, including defence. With Saudi Arabia being among the top three global arms purchasers, the regime has plans to grow its arms industry and manufacturing capabilities by 2030 through a new state-owned company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).

In September, SAMI’s CEO, Andreas Schwer, attended the 10th Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition in Pretoria, where he announced SAMI’s intention to enter into joint ventures with South African entities, and potentially explore an equity investment into South Africa’s cash-strapped state-owned enterprise, Denel. The South Africans seem interested in the proposal, especially suggestions of an economic bailout for Denel. The minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, confirmed the Saudi overtures on 11 October, and indicated that she did ‘not know what the outcome of those negotiations will be when it gets to the NCACC’. She added that the committee would consider the merits of the proposed deal, including human rights implications. 

The reference to human rights came amidst growing media pressure for South Africa to reconsider its arms sales to the Middle East. She too appeared ill-informed about the situation in Yemen. Her department had only issued two statements on the situation in Yemen over the past three years. On both occasions, the statements appeared to justify Saudi actions as a response to Iranian-backed Houthi militia attacks. In the October press conference, she disclosed that Saudi Arabia had approached Pretoria to intervene with Iran. She grappled with questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights in the light of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia. ‘We do not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights... The reason we established the NCACC in 1994 is that our foreign policy and our own understanding of ourselves is based on human rights. Our common religion is human rights. We have suffered too long to ever veer away from that religious belief,’ she said.

The UAE too has quietly built a formidable military, using its oil wealth to stealthily purchase arms, making it the fourth largest buyer of arms globally. The UAE has also contracted private military security companies linked to Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince to develop a new model army with a strictly no Muslim hiring policy because ‘Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims’. This force consists of foreign troops trained by western veterans and includes several South African mercenaries, in violation of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.

Between 2006 and 2016, Denel supplied an estimated 192 Nyala (rebranded as Agrab in the UAE) armoured mortar carriers to the UAE through an Emirati company, International Golden Group. Another significant deal was the sale of Al-Tariq (known as Umbani in South Africa) guided bombs for mirage jets, produced by Tawazun Dynamics, a joint venture with Denel. This deal, worth 500 million dollars, ensured the delivery of at least 1 600 bombs to the UAE by end 2016. After the Emiratis failed to procure Predator drones from the USA, they acquired Chinese-manufactured drones equipped with South African targeting equipment. 

At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, a UAE spokesperson, Staff Pilot Air-Vice Marshal Abdulla Al Sayed Al Hashemi, announced that the UAE had ordered Seeker surveillance drones from Denel Dynamics to the value of AED 48.1 million (USD 13 million), to be delivered in 2018. The UAE has a reputation for redirecting and re-exporting weapons to other countries (including African states), in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. A recent investigation by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia alleges that the UAE violated the arms embargo imposed on Somalia by transferring military equipment to the Horn of Africa despite international resolutions against the shipments. If South Africa is aware of any such onward sales or transfers of weapons it manufactured, this would violate domestic and international laws, and be in breach of the end user agreement between the UAE and South Africa that assures that any arms purchased would only be utilised by the UAE.

As proxy wars play out between Iran and the Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen at the expense of innocent civilians, there is an increasing indication of an arms race under way in the Middle East. Widespread debate about arms transfers from the UK, Europe and the USA has erupted in those countries because of human rights atrocities committed in the Middle East. Germany and Norway have halted the sale of arms to countries involved in the Yemen war, citing concerns over the humanitarian crisis. To date, the NCACC has not questioned the sale of South African weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite glaring allegations of human rights atrocities.

There are other examples too of South Africa not being strict in its responsibility regarding arms sales. In 2010, the NCACC authorised weapons sales to Libya. In responding to opposition questions about the deal, NCACC chair, Jeff Radebe, defended the government position, arguing that at the time the deal was concluded, there had been no evidence that there would be any political unrest in that country. Similar responses were proffered by Radebe when questioned about more recent dubious deals.

South Africa recently applied to the United Nations for authorisation to sell 1,5 billion Rands worth of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles to Iran, a country that is currently embroiled in the conflict in Syria, and allegedly supportive of the Houthi in Yemen. Such a move would also add to the growing militarisation of a region already fraught with intense conflicts. 

As Saudi atrocities in Yemen and its repression of its own citizens come to light, there appears to be a shift amongst its traditional allies. Following the disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist and critic of the regime, Jamal Khashoggi, earlier this month, pressure has mounted on the US president, Donald Trump to punish Saudi Arabia. While he has vehemently defended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, amounting to $110 billion, the US Senate Foreign Relations chairperson announced that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be passed by Congress. The UK has also threatened serious consequences should Saudi Arabia be found culpable in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Saudi Arabia has begun a diplomatic drive to rescue its reputation and will seek new arms suppliers should the US and UK avenues be blocked. South Africa needs to tread with caution in responding to the temptation to fill such a void, and must ponder carefully its role in further destabilising a region that is already fraught with conflict.

In pursuing its national interests and in advancing economic diplomacy, the South African government believes that promising profitable investments will address the poverty and unemployment scourge. For the South African government, the deals with Saudi Arabia fit well into Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina (send me) campaign – a slogan inspired by the lyrics of a popular song by the late Hugh Masekela, which paints a picture of societal change. However, the cost to South Africa may be immeasurable. 

The right to life and human dignity that are emphasised in the South African constitution cannot be forsaken in favour of financial gain, while blood continues to be spilled. Continued engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the defence sector may render South Africa culpable in the deaths of innocent people, the implications of which are far-reaching beyond the Gulf region and could have a direct impact on international stability. Pretoria must carefully consider the long-term costs and consequences of short-term deals. As South Africa prepares to take its seat at the UNSC in January 2019, it must ensure that such offers do not compromise its neutrality, and that it renews its reputation as a fair, independent defender of human rights.

* Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa

Event Description

Turkey and South Africa are two regional powers with international roles, responsibilities and influence. This conference will bring together experts, policy-makers, current and former officials, as well as representatives of international agencies to share their perspectives and provide new insights on the current situation and future of Turkish and South African politics and relations. The conference will have three sessions: The first session will focus on the ways in which dominant party politics affect internal and international dynamics within these two regional powers. The second session will evaluate the roles and responsibilities of Turkey and South Africa towards the MENA region. The last session will concentrate on new initiatives and opportunities for partnerships between Turkey and South Africa in Africa.

Agenda

09:00 – 09:30 Registration
   
09:30 – 09:45 Welcome, Introduction:
   
09.45 – 11:00 Keynote Address
   
11:15 – 12.45 Session I: Opportunities and challenges of dominant party politics in Turkey and South Africa
  • AK Party and ANC: Dominant parties at play
  • Political economy of Turkey-South Africa relations: Opportunities and challenges
  • The implication of Turkey’s failed coup on Turkey-South Africa relations  
12.45 – 14.00 Lunch
   
14.00 – 15.30 Session II: Turkish and South African roles in the face of a turbulent MENA region
  • The evolution of Turkey’s Middle East Policy: Causes, Consequences, and Implications
  • South Africa’s imperatives in its foreign policy on the Middle East
  • Where will Turkey’s Syria policy lead to?
  • A South African view on the Syrian imbroglio
15.30 – 15.45 Coffee Break
   
15.45 – 17.15 Session III: South Africa and Turkey: The potential for cooperation in Africa
  • Is the new ‘scramble for Africa’ good for the continent?
  • Turkey’s role in Africa: A critical assessment
  • Development Aid in Africa: Old Issues, New Solutions?
  • The potential for South African-Turkish cooperation in Africa after the failed coup attempt in Turkey
17:15 – 17:45 Closing Remarks

The conference will take place at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, South Africa.

 
 
Sheraton Pretoria Hotel
643 Stanza Bopape St, Pretoria, 0007, South Africa - Pretoria
Events
 

Location
Sheraton Pretoria Hotel

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