The Multinational Monitor


S O U T H   A F R I C A

U.S. Data Processing Corporations Are Supplying South Africa with the Brains of Its Military and Police Services

Computers are the key to monitoring apartheid

by Thomas Conrad

No other sector of the economy is as utterly dependent as the computer industry is on the multinationals... it is a sector through which a stranglehold can be applied on the whole economy," explained a South African business analyst in a 1978 article entitled, "How to Beat a Computer Siege."

Fearing a cutoff of crucial supplies, Pretoria broke out in a cold sweat when the Carter administration widened restrictions on computer exports to South Africa in 1978.

Despite Washington's export controls, however, the "Computer Siege" never fully materialized, as U.S. data processing firms have continued to perform their strategic role in outfitting the apartheid system with sophisticated technology.

U.S. multinationals helped pioneer the use of computers in South Africa in the '50s. The growth of the computer age was closely linked to the consolidation and expansion of the white power structure. IBM received its first order for an "electronic tabulator" in 1952 from Pretoria's Division of Economics. Since then, IBM, Burroughs, NCR, and others have helped to automate virtually the entire government apparatus, outfitting the military establishment and equipping the white-controlled industrial and financial sectors.

Wary of criticism at home, most U.S. computer companies have kept a low profile in South Africa, functioning as silent partners in the system of white rule. From all appearances, they are in South Africa to stay. By 1980, U.S. data-processing corporations controlled 75 percent of the sales and 77 percent of the rentals of computers in South Africa, generating over $33 million in local taxes for Pretoria every year.

For over 10 years, IBM hardware has served as the electronic memory bank for a large part of South Africa's national identity system. Pretoria's Interior Department runs its population registry on two IBM 370s which store details on seven million citizens the government classifies as "coloureds," Asians and whites.

Company officials have defended the Interior Department installation by pointing out that the passbook system for those designated as black is maintained on a different computer (IBM reportedly bid on the contract to run the black pass system but lost out to the British firm ICL). IBM officials maintain that the Interior Department installation is not objectionable because it does not cover the black population, but the company's hardware plays a key role in facilitating the very system of racial classification that makes apartheid possible.

South Africa's Plural Affairs Department monitors the movements of South Africa's black population. The Department operates through a network of 14 regional "Bantu Administration Boards," which administer the complex system of permits and controls governing the lives of blacks in South Africa. At least four U.S. computers are at the disposal of the Boards - courtesy of Burroughs, NCR, and Mohawk Data Sciences.

In addition to their use in the national identity system and the Bantu agencies, U.S. computers are indispensable in several other state departments. IBM provides the Department of the Prime Minister with a large system for data storage and processing. The Department of Statistics also uses a large IBM mainframe computer. Sperry has supplied a Univac machine to the South African Reserve Bank, and Mohawk Data Science equipment is used in the Treasury.

U.S. multinationals have automated several of South Africa's white-run regional and local government bodies which are responsible for the legally enforced indignities inflicted daily on blacks and Asians who live in "white areas." NCR, which has been a major force behind the drive to computerize local South African agencies, has outfitted Pietersburg, Stellenbosch, Rustenburg and other cities. IBM computers are used by white authorities in Randfontein, Newcastle, and elsewhere. Wang, Mohawk, Sperry, IBM and Burroughs have supplied provincial administrations.

In 1977, Pretoria declared a "Total Strategy," integrating all levels of the government, industry, business and other institutions into the struggle for white political control. Since the strategy calls for "constant cooperation" between civilian and military sectors, any computers leased or sold to local white-run agencies may wind up in the hands of the police and military.

Despite tighter export controls President Carter announced in February 1978 which prohibited the "export or re-exports of any commodity or technical data for delivery directly or indirectly to or use by or for military or police entities" in South Africa, Pretoria's police establishment has continued to acquire sensitive technology from the United States. For example, in 1978, nine disc storage units made by Control Data Corporation were sent to the South African Police as part of a computer system assembled in the United Kingdom by ICL. Control Data denies any responsibility for the transaction but it has been under investigation by the U.S. Commerce Department.

IBM insists that it won't knowingly sell equipment to customers who will use it to further repression, but evidence suggests that the company has supplied the apartheid police with software. An entry in a software catalog published in South Africa in 1980 shows that IBM's General Systems Division markets a "Law Enforcement System." When contacted for information about the package, a company representative did not initially deny that the police system was available in South Africa. Only after the existence of the package was publicly disclosed did IBM begin to insist that it wasn't available in South Africa after all. The company is still unwilling or unable to say for sure how the law enforcement software turned up in the South African computer publication.

South Africa's security industry also has access to U.S. high-tech gear useful in counterinsurgency and surveillance operations. A Califoria-based firm, Technology for Communications international, markets advanced electronic sensing equipment which can be used to locate radio signals from a clandestine transmitter. Barnes Engineering of Stamford, Connecticut produces an "Infralarm" system which detects body heat and movement, according to a South African ad. This system is marketed through a third party in South Africa.

By the time Washington banned direct sales of U.S. equipment to the South African military in 1978, IBM, RCA, TRW, ITT and others had already supplied the South African Defence Force with thousands of dollars worth of sensitive equipment. For example, Pretoria uses IBM equipment in its computerized military command and control system. Major applications of the system include tactical battle planning, military software development, and management of troop deployments.

IBM and other U.S. companies insist that they stopped direct sales of U.S. equipment to the military after export controls were tightened, but the law did allow the multinationals to continue supplying non-U.S. origin parts to embargoed entities. Much of the maintenance of military computer installations is now performed by local third party companies.

South Africa's state-directed arms industry relies heavily on U.S. hardware. Although the earlier restrictions prohibited direct sales to ARMSCOR, the government-owned weapons maker, ARMSCOR's subsidiaries (nine are known to exist; others are reportedly secret) were not embargoed. They include Lyttleton Engineering Works, which makes artillery, Somchem, an explosives manufacturer, and Atlas Aircraft, which last fall received a Univac computer sold by Sperry in a deal approved by the Reagan administration.

Researchers working on military projects at several institutes have access to an advanced computer installation based on sophisticated IBM and Control Data hardware. Control Data has recently applied for a license to export a computer to upgrade a system at South Africa's largest research agency, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (SCIR) in Pretoria. Among other things, CSIR researchers have developed counterinsurgency vehicles, designed military electronics systems, constructed fingerprint storage mechanisms, performed research and development in aeronautics and helped design shells for explosives.

Private companies and institutions with links to the military also use U.S. hardware. Sandock-Austral, a local corporation which has furnished armored vehicles and strikecraft to the security forces, has received hard ware from Burroughs. Data General, Hewlett-Packard, NCR and Burroughs have supplied equipment to Barrows, a major military electronics producer in South Africa, and its subsidiaries. And the Pretoria Technikon, a public institution which trains police computer operators and military explosives technicians, uses equipment from IBM and Data General.

Sensitive equipment from the United States is apparently widely available to electronics companies in South Africa. An infrared imaging system made in the United States by a subsidiary of the Dutch-owned Philips Corporation was advertised in a local electronics journal. The system is commonly used in military night vision equipment. Other ads indicate that military components from U.S. manufacturers are also available in South Africa (see sidebar).

How does high tech equipment from U.S. multinationals find its way into the hands of South Africa's regime, its military, police and arms establishment?

The overwhelming number of South African government departments are simply exempt from the U.S. embargo; many sales are handled directly. In other cases, where the sale might be scrutinized by U.S. export officials, South Africa can rely on its central procurement agency, the State Tender Board. The Board, which requisitions equipment for several departments including the military, can conceal the ultimate end-user of any equipment. The use of third-party companies and front groups for maintenance and sales also gives buyer and seller a way to sidestep the embargo.

There is a brisk flow of high-tech equipment and spares from subsidiaries of U.S. multinationals outside the territorial United States. According to Stephen Orphen, an industry analyst in South Africa, over 70 percent of the U.S. computer equipment sold by U.S. multinationals in South Africa is manufactured by their subsidiaries outside the United States.

A State Department cable released under the Freedom of Information Act makes it clear that the U.S. government is aware that corporations are using their overseas subsidiaries to supply Pretoria. "It is our understanding that most U.S. firms have been able to continue sales by shifting to non-U.S. sources for components," wrote one U.S. embassy official in South Africa in a cable dated August 1, 1979 and addressed to then-Secretary of State Vance.

Another U.S. embassy cable, dated October 13, 1978, detailed a secret South African study which stressed the role of the multinationals in thwarting export controls. It confirmed that U.S. subsidiaries in South Africa have been collaborating with Pretoria to guarantee South Africa's access to U.S. technology and to pressure officials at home to reduce the threat imposed by the embargo:

"Multinationals, including U.S. subsidiaries, are determined to undercut any sanctions action and have already made plans to camouflage their operation through subterfuges arranged with affiliates in other countries. SAG's [the South African Government's] stake in the multinationals is very large, not only for obvious economic reasons but because they exercise a restraining effect on policymakers abroad."

Thomas Conrad is a researcher with NARMIC (National Action/Research on the Military-Industrial Complex), a program of the American Friends Service Committee. This article is based on a forthcoming NARMIC booklet, Automating Apartheid. For more information, write NARMIC/AFSC, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102.

U.S. Weapons Merchants Advertise in South Africa

While U.S, computer sales may have been violating the spirit of the U.N. arms embargo against South Africa, evidence in the South African press suggests that U.S. armament companies may have violated the letter of the embargo.

For the first time in several years, South African magazines have begun to carry advertisements for U.S. weapons. One Johannesburg arms dealer's ad in a June, 1981 issue of the South African military magazine Paratus features Colt police revolvers and Remington riot shotguns.

Another ad lists Winchester semi-automatic shotguns, Winchester pump-action riot guns, Smith & Wesson revolvers and Colt army revolvers. Ammunition from Winchester, Federal Cartridge and Remington are also on the South African market, according to the ads.

These U.S. companies, when asked by Multinational Monitor how their products seemed to have landed on the South African market in contravention of U.N. sanctions and U.S. law, denied any knowledge of the ads and took no responsibility for the apparent availability of their weapons and ammunition.

Reagan administration opens new loopholes

On March 1, the Reagan administration greased the skids for U.S. sales to Pretoria's security forces by significantly relaxing controls on U.S. exports to South Africa.

"Controls on South Africa and Namibia have been modified," the Department of Commerce announced, "to remove controls that were detrimental to U.S. business while having little, if any, impact on South African adherence to apartheid."

Among the highlights of the Reagan changes:

  • Requests to export aircraft and helicopters to South Africa will be "considered favorably on a case by case basis" provided they cannot be put to military or police use;
  • Exports to the police and military of anti-hijacking gear, personal computers and communications equipment, medicine and items not subject to "national security controls" will generally be allowed as long as they do "not contribute significantly to military or policy functions."
  • Sales of U.S. components and equipment to Pretoria's security forces from foreign countries will generally be allowed when they are incorporated in a larger system and make up no more than 20% of it;
  • Computers and other products destined for 'most South African agencies and the subsidiaries of ARMSCOR will be "considered favorably" unless they would be used "to enforce the South African policy of apartheid."

The new regulations, strongly lobbied for by U.S. corporations, are studded with loopholes. For example, after permission is given to sell a "civilian aircraft" to private users, the U.S. is powerless to prevent its diversion to the security forces. Pretoria's military is already using civilian versions of the Cessna U-17 Skywagon, which were supplied a few years ago, in counter-guerrilla operations. According to congressional sources, the administration is already considering a request for a license to export "ambulance aircraft" to the South African Defence Force.

The new controls are hobbled by a lack of precision and specificity, which gives enormous discretion to licensing officials and the multinationals. Although U.S. exports to the security forces are supposed to be denied if they would contribute significantly to military and police operations, an official at the Office of Export Administration acknowledged that the Commerce Department has no criteria to determine how useful an item might be to the security forces. He said it would be "developed on an ad-hoc basis."

What has "significant" police and military applications? The Commerce Department hasn't decided yet. Computer memories, microfilm which permits lightning-speed retrieval and review of files, chemicals, industrial goods and electronic chips - taken alone, none of these products are military items. But in the hands of the security forces and South Africa's arms industry they can be used to help Pretoria track and destroy its opponents. It appears that the new regulations would permit U.S. multinationals to sell these types of commodities to the police and military in South Africa.

"The sale of non-lethal goods to the South African military and police forces, as well as the sale of computers to various government departments" subverts the expressed intent of disassociating the U.S. from the system of apartheid," wrote Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, a black lobby for Africa and the Caribbean, in a March 12 letter to the Commerce Department.

Calling the move to weaken export regulations on South Africa "flawed and irresponsible," Robinson said that the decision by the Reagan administration "will encourge rather than deter human rights violations." This latest move reinforces the fear that there is a "lack of commitment and sensitivity to the issue of racial equality and justice in South Africa," Robinson stated.

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