April 15, 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 7
A P A R T H E I D ' S V I C T I M S A N D A L L I E S
South Africa's War Machine
What's an Embargo Between Friends...by Allan Nairn
Three years ago a visitor to the facilities of Armscor, the Armaments Corporation of South Africa, was invited to test-fire what his hosts described as two breakthrough products in the field of domestic crowd control.
"We were mainly talking about assault rifles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and setting up a line of credit," recalled the visitor, who was there on behalf of a Central American army, "but they said they had some new stuff I just had to see, things that were suited to our needs."
The first item, a gun, was mounted on a jeep. "It was amazing, a machine-gun shotgun, I'd never seen anything like it," he said. "Two tracks, semi-automatic, you could squeeze off one shotgun round after another. In ten seconds everything in front of you up to a hundred feet would be totally saturated with lead. It wouldn't matter who you were dealing with. After a few seconds with that baby they wouldn't be there anymore."
A variant of this machine-gun shotgun-a 12-round repeater known as "The Striker"-may be purchased by white South Africans from an Armscor affiliate, Armsel of New Germany, Natal. Armed Forces, a South African military journal, notes that "exhaustive field tests were undertaken before the weapon was introduced to the public, and there are already many satisfied users."
The article, illustrated with a photo of a white man brandishing the gun in front of a house, hints at the type of shooting for which the weapon is intended: "The Striker has been designed so that it can be used in confined spaces. With the butt in the folded position the overall length is 500 mm and the unloaded weight [of] 4.2 kg makes it a realistic proposition for use from inside a car or vehicle cab."
The Striker can be ordered with a red dot night sight made by Armson, a U.S. company based in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
The second Armscor product, a spherical bomb about the size of a large grapefruit, was designed to be dropped from planes and helicopters.
"It's a bounce bomb," recalls the Central American army representative, "designed by the Rhodesians. It hits the ground and bounces and goes off while it's three to four meters up. An unbelievable thing. The Armscor people have tested it. It annihilates any goddamn thing that's there dogs, chickens, even cockroaches don't survive. The net effect of the blast is that all the metal turns to shrapnel and the little rubber balls packed around the core end up penetrating flesh, the blast is so fierce."
The bounce bomb made its international debut at the Chile Defense Exhibition in Santiago, hosted by General Pinochet's Air Force in May, 1984.
According to Armed Forces magazine, the "bomb is designed to produce a high density uniform fragmentation pattern over a large ground area," and "is principally intended as an anti-personnel weapon."
The journal reported that the bombs, designed to explode 0.65 seconds after ground impact, "are normally delivered 100 to 300 at a time."
The Chilean exhibition was Armscor's second public foray into the global arms export market. The first-in Athens at the 1982 Defendori show-was aborted when the Greeks, bowing to public pressure, expelled Armscor from the show grounds on the final morning of the five day event. Santiago dramatized Armscor's growing penetration of the international market and its emerging role as supplier to Third World regimes which need to maintain a capacity to kill their own people on a moment's notice. Both are facets of a remarkable enterprise-South Africa's third largest industrial company-that has sprung sui generis from the 1977 U.N. arms embargo and South Africa's ongoing war against neighboring states and its internal black majority.
Armscor grew out of the Armaments Production Board organized by South Africa in 1964 following a non-binding 1963 U.N. Security Council resolution calling on member states to terminate all arms sales and licensing agreements to South Africa. In 1977, the largely ineffective 1963 resolution was replaced by a mandatory embargo. Armscor was organized as a semi-autonomous state corporation in charge of procuring weaponry and regulating the sale of firearms. It is run with the mix of state control and private profit, that, when applied in other sectors, notably railroads, trucking, and utilities all of which are government-controlled-has given South Africa the largest public sector in the capitalist world. Nearly 50 percent of the country's Gross National Product is produced by state enterprises, a degree of government intervention that dwarfs a number of socialist countries-Nicaragua among them.
Armscor's board, consisting primarily of private businessmen, is appointed by South Africa's president. Although the company issues stock, the Ministry of Defense has the final word on Armscor policy. In 1979, the company was reorganized by J.B. Maree who was lent to Armscor free of charge by Barlow Rand, the financial-industrial conglomerate which is South Africa's second largest firm. Though obliged to meet the needs of the South African Defense Force (SADF), Armscor is free to generate revenue of its own through exports and private domestic sales.
With 23,000 employees, 1,000 subcontractors, 1.3 billion rand ($585 million) in assets and an income of 1.6 billion rand, Armscor stocks the most sophisticated army in the Third World. The company produces more than 8,000 military items, from boots to fighter planes to air-to-ground missiles, including 144 types of ammunition.
Along with arming South African strike forces in Angola and Mozambique, Armscor has also developed an armory of domestic anti-personnel devices engineered to meet Pretoria's internal security needs. In addition to the machine-gun shotgun and the bounce bomb, Armscor produces a special hand grenade, which was unveiled at a May, 1983 weapons demonstration at the company's Swartklip pyrotechnics plant. The grenade is "capable of killing and injuring with a blast of needle-sharp, white-hot fragments, which scatter over a wide radius," according to The Citizen, a local newspaper which covered the weapons demonstration.
Armscor makes a civilian version of the Army's R-4 assault rifle-a copy of the Galil, made under license from Israel-which is marketed to whites for "home defence." Police are equipped with "The Stopper," a breech-loading, six shot, semi-automatic (one shot per second) gun which fires three-inch rubber bullets described by Janes' Infantry Weapons as being of "limited lethality" from 55 to 110 yards. At least a dozen children are known to have died from the bullets in the last two years.
According to Armscor Chairman Commandant Piet Marais, such deaths are unplanned outcomes of a vexing challenge to weapons engineers. "The definition of these weapons is very difficult," he said in January, 1986, in an interview with the European journal Defence and Armament. "First of all, you don't want to maim or kill people; you just want to neutralize them. Sometimes they are as close as 25 meters. Then the stone throwing will take place up to 150 meters. So you have the problem that the rubber bullet that can be effective at 150 meters will kill or maim someone at 25 meters. We have asked them to sit down and work out their specifications. Then you find that conditions can vary. In the urban areas, the people are in concentrated crowds. When you are out in the townships, they are spread out wide. So the equipment must be different. We are setting about this in a very scientific way, just to get their thinking right. Once they know what they want, then we can develop something.
"Another concept we are working on is throwing up blockades with rolls of barbed wire. But we haven't been asked to work in this area yet."
Though ostensibly commissioned to defend the country's borders, the South African Defence Force, the other wing of the state's security apparatus, is armed and trained for internal security missions.
Asked in January if the army was prepared to deal with internal unrest, SADF Commandant General J.J. Geldenuys replied, "yes, even if this is not the primary role of the army. After all, we have been mentalized for use of the army in this role. It happened in 1922,'48,'49, in the late '50s, '60, '76, and '84. Recent military history is full of cases where we did just this sort of thing."
Such experience is a primary selling point to prospective Third World customers. "If he [the buyer] has a scenario like ours," Armscor Executive General Manager Fred Bell observed in 1982, "he can't go wrong buying South African made armaments."
South Africa's political climate is reproduced with ironic fidelity inside Armscor's own factories. At Armscor's Lenz ammunition plant on the outskirts of Soweto, 1,600 black workers hand-pack live explosives into 60 mm French proximity fuses-rocket cartridges first produced 20 years ago and brought to Lenz to be rebuilt after use in the field. This year, that hazardous procedure will be phased out, Lenz closed, and production shifted to the fully automated Boskop plant where a staff of 16 will run the entire factory from a video control room. In addition to being more economical, South African military officials say, the Boskop facility will obviate the problem of black workers smuggling out explosives for use by the African National Congress (ANC)---a problem at many Armscor plants despite rigorous body-search procedures.
Like the intricately engineered apartheid system it was designed to defend, Armscor is a tribute to the demented creativity of a white elite under siege. In just nine years since the U.N. embargo, it has reached a logistic and technological pinnacle, meeting the needs of South Africa's own expanding army and bursting onto the international market to supply many of the same countries that voted to cease trading with South Africa.
The feat has been accomplished through an energetic combination of government will, private cooperation, and clandestine assistance from the West-most notably Israel and Great Britain.
In an interview with the Multinational Monitor last year at Armscor's heavily guarded Pretoria headquarters, Armscor spokesman Theo Vorster took few pains to conceal the overseas origins of his company's military technology. "One must not be naive," he said, speaking of the U.N. embargo. "It cost us initially, but when we did not have certain products we simply purchased them through third parties."
"Oh yes," he said, "most of it came from the West. There was a big ruckus in the United States a few years ago about the G-5 [a high powered howitzer developed by Space Research Corporation of Vermont]. Jerry Bull [Space Research's founder] gave us everything. He had the idea, nobody needed it in the United States, so we got a hold of it and made some refinements."
Asked whether licensing agreements with Israel continued underground after the 1977 embargo, Vorster replied, "Well, I can't say, but I would think it's obvious. Once you have the expertise you can make the shoe. If Bally gave you the original idea how to make the shoe, you might not make it under the Bally name, but you're not going to stop making shoes."
"If what we are fighting for is worth it," Armscor General Manager Fred Bell said in 1983 when asked by trainers, and England, Rolls Royce Viper turbos.
Though successful in obtaining a great deal of foreign hardware, Armscor was still unable to import at will. Many products-particularly high tech aviation systems-had to be manufactured domestically. Armscor's massive investments in plant and development for subsidiaries such as Atlas Aircraft and its Kentron optics and guided missile division could only be recouped with large production runs far in excess of what the South African Defence Force was capable of absorbing on its own. The solution was exports.
"There is over-production," Armscor's Vorster explains. "And you can't just close the factories until such time as you need them, because you have to maintain the expertise. That's what gave rise to our drive for export markets."
The campaign has met with considerable success, netting an estimated thirty major export customers. Last spring, Armscor closed a one billion rand deal with Iraq for ammunition, G-5 guns and fire control equipment. Eloptro, Kentron's optics department, has a five year plan to export fully half of its total production. Its products are state of the art, ranging from image intensifier tubes to night driverscopes for armored cars.
Discussing future production and export strategy, Armscor Chairman Piet Marais says "We are doing lots of work on missiles, because we feel that is where the future lies: air/air, air/ground, ground/ground, anti-tank. We must remain present here, we have no options."
Armies unable to use Armscor's more advanced products have nevertheless become a ready source of cash, particularly for infantry and internal security devices.
"Latin America is probably the most obvious market," Vorster says, "I would think, as far as conditions are concerned, that they are the area most similar to South Africa."
International economic sanctions and fear about the white regime's stability have ironically helped Armscor's export business by depressing the exchange value of the rand and making South Africa's weapons more affordable to overseas buyers. Sanctions have, however, hurt in other ways. South Africa's recession and across the board cutbacks last year compelled the layoff of 620 Armscor workers.
Armscor exports have not yet begun to relieve the economic drain imposed by the necessity of expensive local production. Armscor factories last year operated at only one-third of capacity.
Armscor executives believe that the key to expanding markets is overcoming South Africa's image problem among prospective arms buyers. Significantly enough, however, they define that problem as arising not from concerns about what South Africa is doing to its people, but doubt about South African technical capabilities.
"The big problem," says Theo Vorster, "is imagine you're sitting in a sophisticated place like Europe or the United States and you hear about Armscor. First of all, you don't even know about South Africa as a country. To you, Africa is Africa, it's bush, people living in mud huts, carrying their belongings on their heads and living off cattle. And all of a sudden you appear on the international market with a highly sophisticated weapon. You think anybody's going to believe that you make it? So first of all we have to tell the people who we are. You have to create the awareness that you are a company-yes, you're from Africa, but you're sophisticated."
Some finished goods came via transactions tolerated by the governments of the supplying countries, others were smuggled in illegally. In 1983, for example, England openly sold South Africa a five million-pound Marconi radar system. The following year, four Armscor executives - Stephanus de Jager, Jacobus le Grange, Hendrik Botha and William Metelerkamp - were arrested in a London hotel for conspiring to smuggle spare parts for a guided weapons system. They later skipped bail and returned to South Africa where they boasted of their mission at an Armscor press conference.
Armscor gave particular attention to obtaining weapons-making tools. Much of their bullet and mortarmaking machinery was originally smuggled in from the British engineering firm of Redman Heenan. In 1983, Rheinmetal AG of West Germany covertly shipped, via Paraguay, an entire factory for 155 mm howitzer projectiles. A scheme to ship numerically controlled airframe milling machines from Berox Machine Tool of South Wales was aborted last July when it was exposed by the British Guardian.
Armscor began with a corporate media campaign designed by De Villiers advertising of Johannesburg. Full page ads in international defense magazines featured quotations from George Bernard Shaw and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and copy on the Armscor philosophy. The ads, illustrated with drawings of the literary greats, made no mention of particular weapons systems. The follow-up campaign got specific, featuring bombs, tanks, and cutaway views of bullets packed with shrapnel. It also introduced the Armscor slogan: "Combat Proven Reliability: we've tested our product and we know that it works."
Regardless of the outcome of South Africa's export drive and Armscor's long-run economic balance sheet, the company has achieved its government's fundamental security objective. With self-sufficiency in weapons production, South Africa is today less vulnerable to the withholding of outside military support than at any time in the postwar era. Though the underground flow of technology and hardware from Israel, England, and the West continues, Armscor has developed to the point that South Africa's army could now endure even a genuine arms embargo.
"In 1960," says Bruce Bartlett of the Heritage Foundation, "South Africa was 60 percent dependent on foreign arms. Now, it is 90 percent self-sufficient."
How the regime as a whole would adjust to the political shock of such a move is another question. With each clandestine import, Armscor brings across the border an unwritten message of Western tolerance for a white-run South Africa. It is a vital psychological lifeline for a regime which defines as the enemy 80 percent of its own population.
Allan Nairn is a freelance writer based in New York City.