A South African view of the arms trade

By Andrew Feinstein

I come at issues related to the arms trade from two related perspectives: as a former African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament in South Africa, who witnessed at first hand the pervasive and damaging consequences of the arms trade on South Africa’s young democracy; and as a researcher and author who is developing an understanding of the global trade, legal and illegal, and the inextricable link between the two, as I write a book on the impact of the arms trade on democracy around the world.

While I obviously accept that every state has the right to defend itself, especially in an ever more complex and dangerous world, I believe that the manner in which the arms trade is organized and conducted means that:

  • •by virtue of its products, it fuels and often sustains conflicts, not just in the most obvious sense, but also because of the remarkably high incidence of political and military blowback, where weapons end up in the hands of those they were meant to defend against, thus further intensifying conflict.
  • • the arms trade contributes directly and indirectly to human rights abuses—not just in war zones, but on the political battlefields of Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and many other states.
  • • it is the most corrupt of all trading activity (accounting for about 40 per cent of all corruption), depriving millions of people in purchasing countries of much needed socioeconomic development, and resulting in massive wastage of the taxpayer money of selling countries through subsidies and incentives. As a consequence it often undermines accountable democracy, transparent governance, and the rule of law, both in countries that buy and countries that sell.

These effects are only possible because, currently, decisions about arms deals—whether they are worth many billion or a few thousand dollars—involve very few people in the decision-making process and are hidden behind the veils of national security and commercial secrecy.


The South African arms deal

This year the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. As we celebrate we should reflect on how the arms trade has undermined the very institutions of democracy that Mandela and hundreds of thousands of others sacrificed so much to achieve.

As early as 1991, with Mandela free from prison and the ANC unbanned, big arms companies from Europe attempted to persuade key ANC leaders that arms deals were, inter alia, a good way to raise money for the party.

After the 1994 elections in South Africa brought Mandela to power, government leaders from European Union member states fell over each other trying to convince the new government to buy their country’s wares.

The ANC came to power promising to cut defence spending in order to increase social spending. As early as May 1990, Mandela (1990), in introducing the ANC plan for social reform to South African business executives, had said, “Enormous savings will be made as a result of the abolition of the multi-headed hydra represented by the various apartheid administrative structures. Defence spending will also have to be reduced radically as a result of the thinning down of the defence establishment.” Nevertheless, in 1998-99 South Africa committed to spend over $6-billion US (over the life of a contract that would run until 2018) on arms and weapons1 it didn’t need and barely uses today (Ensor 2007). Even senior members of the South African National Defence Force thought that such expenditure was absurd.

It appears that, as part of the arms deal, over $300- million in bribes was paid to senior politicians, officials, and the ANC itself (Feinstein 2009, pp. 139, 158). While these allegations have not been proven, it would seem that bribes were a key motivator, because the ANC was bankrupt and needed to finance an upcoming election. On the most expensive contract for jet planes, the winning bidder didn’t even make the technical short-list. The South African Air Force made clear that it didn’t want the equipment (which was 2.5 times the cost of the equipment that had topped the short-list). They went so far as to say that they would only accept the equipment if forced to do so by the politicians.

To overcome these hurdles, two-thirds of the way through the process, the Minister of Defence took the 8 extraordinary decision that on this, the most expensive contract democratic South Africa had ever entered into, cost would be excluded as a procurement criterion (p. 142).

On that deal alone there is evidence that £116-million was paid in bribes to the Minister, his political advisor, and others.

Social and political costs

South Africa has paid for this deal in lives. At almost the same time that he signed contracts to spend all this money on arms, President Thabo Mbeki announced that the country could not afford to buy the antiretroviral drugs required to keep alive the more than 5 million South Africans living with HIV/AIDS (Gumede 2008). A Harvard University study (Chigwedere et al. 2008) stated that, between 2000 and 2005, “more than 330,000 lives or approximately 2.2 million person-years were lost because a feasible and timely ARV [antiretroviral drug] treatment program was not implemented in South Africa.” These AIDS victims were, as a leading AIDS campaigner has said, “too poor to buy life sustaining treatment” (Kaunda 2000).

Social groups and journalists2 have pointed out that the money spent on the arms deal could have been used to build and staff new schools, hire new doctors, and pay out a monthly Basic Income Grant (for the duration of the contracts) to the almost 30 per cent of South Africans then unemployed. According to a Treasury study presented to the cabinet but never made available to the public (Sole 2008), the deal could be responsible for reducing GDP between 0.1 and 0.4 of a percentage point for every year of the contract.

To prevent the corruption from being exposed, Parliament and the prosecutorial and investigative bodies have been fatally undermined, diminishing the institutions of our young, hard-won democracy. Many of them continue to deteriorate.

This deal was the point at which the ANC lost its moral compass. It marked the beginning of a series of  similar corrupt transactions that have continued to benefit the ANC and undermine the provision of basic social services.3

The need for a strong arms trade treaty

The UK’s Serious Fraud Office has recently decided to settle with the major British company concerned, closing its investigation into the South African deal, and raising myriad legal questions (Radebe 2010).

The arms trade is unique in that its products generate significant profits while its losses are measured in lives. Therefore, the trade in weapons should be subject to the greatest scrutiny and regulation.

In the interconnected age in which we live, where communications and finance are truly global in scope and impact, the world is crying out for a set of global principles and values that prize honesty, accountability, and integrity over corruption, intrigue, and deceit; that value a better life for all over profit and ever increasing inequalities; and that value enhancing life over ending it.

Over the next two years the members of the Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee can make an enormous difference to the lives of hundreds of millions of people by working without ceasing for a robust, just, and enforceable international arms trade treaty that brings greater regulation and transparency to this most opaque of trades.

This article is based on a presentation given in Vienna in February at a meeting of the Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee. Andrew Feinstein is an author and lecturer, as well as chair of the AIDS charity, Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign. An updated paperback version of his book After the Party was published in May.


1. For more detail, see Feinstein 2009. Page references in the text are from this source. See also The Arms Deal Virtual Press Office at  http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za

2. See, for example, Streek 2001 and Coetzee 2005.

3. See Feinstein, chapter 18, “The story that won’t go away.”


Ensor, Linda. 2007. SA’s R13, 7bn fighter jets turn into an expensive folly. Business Day, March 12. http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles10/expensive.html 

Chigwedere, Pride, George R. Seage III, Sofia Gruskin, Tun-Hou Lee & M. Essex. 2008. Estimating the lost benefits of antiretroviral drug use in South Africa. Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. Vol. 49, Issue 4, pp. 410-415. http://journals.lww.com/jaids/Fulltext/2008/12010/Estimating_the_Lost_Benefits_of_Antiretroviral.10.aspx

Coetzee, Carol. 2005. The waste of SA’s war machine. YOU Magazine, March 17. http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles07/war_machine.html

Feinstein, Andrew. 2009. After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future. London: Verso.

Gumede, William. 2008. Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. 2nd ed. London: Zed. Chapter available at http://www.aidstruth.org/features/gumede.

Kaunda, Kenneth. 2000. Towards a more effective leadership response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Address, December 6. http://www.uneca.org/fda2000/daily_updates/speeches/001205_kaunda.htm.

Mandela, Nelson. 1990. Nelson Mandela’s address to South African business executives. Johannesburg, May 23. http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/mandela/1990/sp900523.html.

Radebe, Hopewell. 2010. Arms deal details consigned to dark. Business Day, February 8. http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles15/consigned.html.

Sole, Sam. 2008. Arms deal cost study kept under wraps. Mail & Guardian, July 18. http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles13/wraps.html.

Streek, Barry. 2001. Investigators stick to arms findings. Mail & Guardian,December 11. http://www.armsdeal-vpo.co.za/articles00/investigators_stick.html.

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