Arms exports set to rise following lifting of UN curbs

Straits Times Foreign Desk reporter Derwin Pereira is on assignment in South Africa. He continues with his update of various aspects of the country, which held momentous multi-racial elections recently. In this dispatch, he looks at South Africa’s once-secretive arms industry which is lifting the veil off its organisation and operations in the post-apartheid era.


THE South African government has adopted an export-oriented arms-trade policy, following the lifting of the United Nations arms embargo last month.

And advanced arms and defence equipment – such as the G-5 and G-6 long-range artillery howitzers, the Rooivalk attack helicopter and minesweepers – could soon be making their way to countries in the Middle East, Europe and South-east Asia.

Dr Andre Buys of the state-owned arms-acquisition organisation, the Armament Corporation of South Africa (Armscor), told The Straits Times: “Just the lifting of the arms embargo and the normalisation of trade ties should result in a substantial increase in our exports.”

The UN had passed two resolutions, one in 1977 and the other in 1984, calling on countries not to sell or buy arms from the then apartheid regime.

Dr Buys, who is Armscor’s senior manager for planning, said: “We were hit badly in arms export because of such international agreements. We continued exporting our hardware but under severe restrictions.”

He pointed out that South African-made arms were sold to South America and the Middle East during the sanctions era.

He said that the South African arms industry was keen on exporting guided weapons such as air-to-air and anti-tank missiles.

It also wanted to sell the G-5 and G-6 long-range artillery howitzers and the Valkiri rocket launchers.

Dr Buys said that Armscor had held discussions with UN agencies to provide mine-clearing vehicles for peacekeeping operations in war-torn areas like Bosnia, Somalia and Angola.

In the same vein, Pretoria would be importing arms, he said, adding that there were plans to purchase light jet aircraft and corvettes.

But he added: “Last year, we exported more than we imported. We will try to maintain that balance.”

South Africa’s total exports amounted to 800 million rand (S$352 million) last year.

Mr Paul Holtzhausen, spokesman for the South African arms manufacturer Denel, said that there could be a 5 per cent increase in exports over the next year.

“It will not climb remarkably,” he said, adding that South Africa’s share of the world arms market was less than 1 per cent.

While arms exports could generate foreign exchange for the economy, which is recovering slowly from the ravages of apartheid, critics have warned against being too dependent on the arms industry and called for a reduced defence budget.

They said investment in the civilian manufacturing sector could generate more jobs, given the capital-intensive nature of the arms industry.

But Dr Buys said that budget cuts since 1989 had seen the number of jobs provided by the defence industry drop from 160,000 to 70,000.

Further cuts would mean that the country’s core defence capabilities, such as sea and air surveillance, would have to go, he warned.

He said South Africa’s arms industry had developed into one of the leading industrial sectors of the economy in terms of technological advancement and export earnings.

“Even after the ‘down-sizing’ of the last five years, it is still a huge reserve of technological skills and capabilities. It is a major national asset,” he said.


With the lifting of sanctions, the South African arms industry is looking to the following areas to sell its military hardware:

* Middle East. South African weapon systems performed well in the region’s hot desert conditions.

* South-east Asia. The region is booming economically and defence budgets are rising. Countries have the need and means to purchase arms.

* Europe. There is a possibility of joint ventures in defence-technology development.

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