Gunning for profit.

Author:Smith, Dexter Jerome
Position:South African arms industry

South Africa's sophisticated arms industry, once the target of concentrated criticism, is now poised to become one of the country's best earners. The technology is there, the demand is there; but moral and ethical questions have still to be resolved.

The formal end of Apartheid in 1994 has not dented the arms industry that was a potent symbol of South Africa's international defiance as well as an effective prop to white minority rule.

In the years that have followed political change, military sales have been growing slowly but surely, and sales of civilian products made by South Africa's defence industry have doubled, accounting now for about 50% of the industry's annual output. That output is now worth $1.6bn, including $250m from exports of which 90% comes from foreign arms sales.

Clearly, President Mandela's South Africa could not have afforded to let such an industry grind to a halt, even if only to safeguard the viability of its civil production, let alone all the jobs it generates and all the foreign exchange it could yet earn.

The lifting of the UN arms embargo obviously helped foreign arms sales -having paradoxically produced, in the first instance, an industry that could turn its hand to almost anything the South African armed forces needed with necessarily low-cost manufacture. Thus, one of Apartheid's better legacies to President Mandela's government was Africa's largest and most advanced defence industry, an employer of 50,000 workers in real high tech manufacturing with a product that, for the most part, is very usable.

Producing technologically respectable products tailored for African conditions (though applicable elsewhere), that were in some cases combat proven in counter-insurgency and conventional warfare (in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and even the 1991 Gulf War), and that were backed by a honeymoon statesman (Nelson Mandela) at the head of a multi-racial black majority government, South Africa's defence industry was - and remains - well set for success.

This is not to say, however, that such success is a given. With South Africa no longer at war with itself or its neighbours, its defence spending today is only half what it was in 1990 in real terms - so its defence industry has been, and still is, in recession. In fact, the defence industry world-wide is in recession - and this buyers' market for arms has been further undercut by arms of ex-Soviet origin on offer at almost give-away prices. If South Africa's arms...

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