Silence and complicity is the price tag attached to Saudi Arabian investments in South Africa, writes Suraya Dadoo
South Africa’s state-owned defence firm, Denel, is desperately short of funds, so, with recent news that Saudi Arabian Military Industries was considering an equity stake in Denel, officials at the department of public enterprises might have rejoiced at the thought of the cash injection.
But what price tag has been attached to the Denel buy-in – and other Saudi investments in South Africa?
Based on our government’s recent conduct, it is silence and complicity in the face of possible war crimes by Saudi Arabia.
On September 28, South Africa abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution calling for an international probe into human rights violations in Yemen.
In the last three years, a Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemen into famine, creating a drastic humanitarian crisis. Riyadh’s campaign to restore the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has involved repeated violations of international law, including war crimes.
It’s unlikely that officials at the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) were unaware of Saudi’s actions in Yemen.
The UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have publicly documented the coalition’s deliberate targeting of civilian institutions.
Dirco has issued just two statements about Yemen since Saudi Arabia launched its military campaign in 2015.
The first, on November 8 last year, came in response to the firing of a missile towards Riyadh, which was intercepted, and there were no casualties. Bizarrely, Dirco considered an intercepted missile an “escalation” of the conflict – and not the 933 Yemeni civilians killed by the coalition.
On the death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Dirco’s second statement, the following month, expressed concern about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis – but not that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for it.
South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) – that regulates weapons companies and exports – has been lax in ensuring compliance by local arms dealers.
According to Zeenat Adam, a former diplomat and independent international relations strategist, in July 2015, a Denel drone was shot down over Yemen.
When asked what our weapons were doing in Yemen, NCACC boss, Jeff Radebe, pointed to a possible breach of end-user certificates, but didn’t investigate. Last year, he agreed to provide a report on South Africa’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but never did.
South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act No 41 of 2002 states that the NCACC must avoid transfers of arms to governments that violate human rights.
Under the UN Arms Trade Treaty, our country has an obligation to halt the supply of weapons if their use will violate international human rights law.
The NCACC is making a mockery of local and international statutes by continuing to arm Saudi Arabia, which is guilty of gross human rights violations in Yemen.
Despite the humanitarian destruction, South African weapons companies sold R3 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and its coalition ally, the United Arab Emirates, between 2016 and 2017.
According to Adam, local companies don’t want to just sell arms to Saudi Arabia – they want to help Riyadh develop its own arms industry.
In 2016, former president Jacob Zuma inaugurated the Al Kharj military facility south of Riyadh.
Built in collaboration with Rheinmetall Denel Munition, it is expected to produce 600 mortar projectiles daily, along with heavyweight aircraft bombs.
Ivor Ichikowitz’s Paramount Group is in talks with Saudi Arabia about transferring technology and establishing production plants.
“This is far more dangerous than merely selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. South African companies risk helping Saudi Arabia to establish munitions factories capable of creating internationally banned cluster munitions.
"Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and has used cluster munitions in Yemen,” explains Adam.
So, the possibility of South African complicity in war crimes is very real.
While International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu seems committed to human rights-based international relations, her colleagues at the department of defence and the NCACC have been arming Saudi Arabia.
A day after South Africa abstained on the UNHRC vote, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies co-chaired the South Africa-Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission, and followed up on Mohammed bin Salman’s $10 billion investment pledge made to Cyril Ramaphosa in July.
South Africa must find a way to balance its economic priorities with our commitment to human rights and international law.
Our legacy of internationalism and a just foreign policy must be protected.
Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network