South Africa's Saudi arms deals betray Mandela's human rights legacy

South Africa's Saudi arms deals betray Mandela's human rights legacy
Comment: Pretoria's foreign policy has been corrupted from defence of human rights into a drive for foreign investment, writes Zeenat Adam
7 min read
15 Oct, 2018
Saudi King Salman (R) met South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa [Saudi Kingdom Council handout/Anadolu]
In September 2018, South Africa abstained on a vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on a resolution calling for the extension of the mandate of an international investigation into alleged human rights violations in Yemen.

South Africa's silence on the human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi Arabian coalition in Yemen is conspicuous.

The approach of abstention on pertinent human rights issues appears to be habitual, as the leading government department on foreign policy, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (
DIRCO) has taken a position of burying their heads in the sand, arguing that such abstentions 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".

The problem with this approach is that it renders South Africa ineffectual and begs the question as to why South Africa serves on the UNHRC, and is expected to begin its third two-year non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council in 2019, if it is reluctant to take a position on matters of global importance.

The fence-sitting approach is a self-centred and immature move that diverts from South Africa's glory days during the Mandela era when the country stood as a firm human rights defender on the international stage. In recent years, South African foreign policy has undergone a drastic shift from being human rights-based to a drive for economic development through foreign investment.

South Africa relinquishes the core values of human rights in its foreign policy, in favour of greed masked as economic diplomacy and development, as it appears to forsake foundational principles for the filling of state coffers.
South Africa appears all too willing to ransom itself to the Gulf state

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the South African government would be reluctant to rock the boat, as it would risk losing the
$10 billion investment clinched by President Cyril Ramaphosa on a visit to Riyadh in July 2018, followed by a Joint Economic Council meeting in October. While the investment is expected to largely focus on the energy sector, indications are that South Africa's failing defence industry may get a boost off the back of the deals.

South Africa appears all too willing to ransom itself to the Gulf state. Saudi Arabia is already one of the most prolific buyers of South African arms, ammunition and defence equipment. Despite Saudi Arabia's notorious human rights record, arms exports from South Africa to Saudi Arabia have grown since the beginning of the war in Yemen, rendering Pretoria potentially complicit in war crimes.

The continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia places South Africa in a moral and possibly legal dilemma, as South Africa's National Conventional Arms Control
Act No 41 of 2002 states that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) must "avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms" and "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".

Saudi Arabia seems to be fervently pursuing a strategy of technology transfer and South Africa has been all too willing to feed the hunger. In 2013 Saudi Arabia engaged in discussions with
Denel Dynamics for the potential purchase of armed drones following Washington's refusal to sell Predator drones to Riyadh.

By 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its own combat drone, Saqr 1, which bore strong resemblance to Denel's Seeker 400. In June 2016, former president Jacob Zuma, who resigned from office in 2017 amid corruption allegations, travelled to Saudi Arabia to inaugurate the
Al-Kharj (Military Industries Corporation) facility in Riyadh, together with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The $240m projectiles factory was built in collaboration with South Africa's Rheinmetall Denel Munition.

MBS has consolidated power in the rooting out of dissidents and in seizing control of key ministries, including defence. With Saudi Arabia among the top three global arms purchasers, the kingdom has plans to grow its arms industry and manufacturing capabilities by 2030 through the newly founded state-owned company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (

In September 2018, SAMI's CEO, Dr Andreas Schwer, attended the 10th edition of the 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 Denel, South Africa's cash-strapped state-owned enterprise.

The South Africans seem interested in the proposal, with hopes of an economic bail-out for the company. Lindiwe Sisulu, minister of International Relations and Cooperation, confirmed the Saudi overtures in a
statement on 11 October 2018 and indicated that she does "not know what the outcome of those negotiations will be when it gets to the NCACC".  

She added that the committee would give due consideration to the merits of the proposed deal, including human rights implications. The reference to human rights comes amid growing media pressure for South Africa to reconsider its arms sales to the Middle East.
South Africa is not new to shady arms deals linked to rampant corruption

To date, the NCACC has not halted the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite glaring allegations of human rights atrocities. In transferring the technology, South Africa protects itself from a future legal quagmire that may arise domestically in terms of the NCACC or internationally, as it is signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty and absolves itself of responsibilities in the case of human rights atrocities being committed with the weapons.

South Africa is not new to
shady arms deals linked to rampant corruption. In 1999, the South African government purchased arms and frigates from BAE systems in the UK and Thales in France. Massive bribes were allegedly paid to South African officials in offshore accounts. The purchase was disguised as an opportunity to stimulate economic development and job creation. A commission of inquiry into the deal was mired by political interference and found no impropriety.

In 2010, the NCACC authorised the sale of arms to Libya. In responding to opposition party questions around the Libya deal, the chairperson of the NCACC, Minister Jeff Radebe,
defended the government position, arguing that at the time the deal was concluded, there was no evidence that there would be any political unrest in that country. Similar responses have been proffered by Radebe when questioned about more recent dubious deals.

In pursuit of its national interests and in advancing economic diplomacy, the South African government believes that promising lucrative investments would address the poverty and unemployment scourge, but it has only served to enrich corrupt cronies. In the eyes of the South African government, the deals with Saudi Arabia fit well into President 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. As Saudi atrocities come to light, there appears to be a sudden shift among its traditional allies. Following the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018,
pressure has mounted on US President Donald Trump to take punitive action against Saudi Arabia.

While the White House has vehemently defended the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, reportedly amounting to $110 billion in one multi-year deal, the US Senate Foreign Relations Chairperson announced that any arms sales to Saudi Arabia would not be passed by Congress.

The UK has also suggested serious consequences should Saudi Arabia be found culpable in Khashoggi's disappearance. Saudi Arabia would be on a diplomatic drive to rescue its reputation and seek new arms suppliers should the avenues to the US and UK be blocked.

South Africa should tread with caution in filling such a void. The leadership in Pretoria must give careful consideration of 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 Johannesburg-based former diplomat and independent international relations strategist.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.