Why Is South Africa Complicit In Turkish War Crimes?

Rheinmetall Defense plant

By Terry Crawford-Browne, November 5, 2020

Although it accounts for less than one percent of world trade, the war business has been estimated to account for 40 to 45 percent of global corruption. This extraordinary estimate of 40 to 45 percent comes from – of all places — the Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) via the US Department of Commerce.    

Arms trade corruption goes right to the top – to Prince Charles and Prince Andrew in England and to Bill and Hillary Clinton when she was US Secretary of State in the Obama administration. It also includes, with a handful of exceptions, every member of the US Congress irrespective of political party.  President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 warned about the consequences of what he termed “the military-industrial-congressional complex.”

Under the pretensions of “keeping America safe,” hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on useless weapons. That the US has lost every war it has fought since the Second World War doesn’t matter as long as the money flows to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and thousands of other arms contractors, plus the banks and oil companies. 

Since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, OPEC oil has been priced in US dollars only.  The global implications of this are immense.  Not only is the rest of the world funding the US war and banking systems, but also one thousand US military bases around the globe – their purpose being to ensure that the US with only four percent of the world’s population can maintain US military and financial hegemony. This is a 21st century variation of apartheid.

The US spent US$5.8 trillion just on nuclear weapons from 1940 until the end of the Cold War in 1990 and now proposes to spend another US$1.2 trillion to modernize them.  Donald Trump claimed in 2016 that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington. Instead, during his presidential watch, the swamp has degenerated into a cesspit, as illustrated by his arms deals with the despots of Saudi Arabia, Israel and UAE.

Julian Assange is presently jailed in a maximum security prison in England. He faces extradition to the US and imprisonment for 175 years for exposing US and British war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries after 9/11.  It is an illustration of the risks of exposing the corruption of the war business.   

Under the guise of “national security,” the 20th century became the bloodiest in history. We are told that what is euphemistically described as “defence” is merely insurance. In fact, the war business is out-of-control. 

The world presently spends about US$2 trillion annually on war preparations. Corruption and human rights abuses are almost invariably inter-connected.  In the so-called “third world,” there are now 70 million desperate refugees and displaced persons including lost generations of children.  If the so-called “first world” does not want refugees, it should stop instigating wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The solution is simple.

At a fraction of that US$2 trillion, the world could instead fund the remedial costs of climate change, poverty alleviation, education, health, renewable energy and related urgent “human security” issues.  I believe that redirecting war spending to productive purposes should be the global priority of the post-Covid era.

A century ago with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Winston Churchill prioritised the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, which was then allied to Germany.  Oil had been discovered in Persia (Iran) in 1908 which the British government was determined to control. The British were equally determined to block Germany from gaining influence in neighbouring Mesopotamia (Iraq), where oil had also been discovered but was not yet exploited.

The post-war Versailles peace negotiations plus the 1920 Treaty of Sevres between Britain, France and Turkey included recognition of Kurdish demands for an independent country. A map set the provisional borders of Kurdistan to include the Kurdish populated areas of Anatolia in eastern Turkey, of northern Syria and Mesopotamia plus western areas of Persia.

Just three years later, Britain abandoned those commitments to Kurdish self-determination.  Its focus in negotiating the Treaty of Lausanne was to include post-Ottoman Turkey as a bulwark against a communist Soviet Union. 

The further rationale was that including Kurds in newly created Iraq would also help to balance the numerical dominance of the Shias.  British intensions to loot Middle East oil took priority over Kurdish aspirations. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds became victims of British perfidy and diplomatic hypocrisy.

By the mid 1930s, the war business was preparing for the Second World War. Rheinmetall had been established in 1889 to manufacture ammunition for the German Empire, and was massively expanded during the Nazi era when thousands of Jewish slaves were forced to work and died in Rheinmetall ammunition factories in Germany and Poland.  Despite that history, Rheinmetall was permitted to resume its manufacture of armaments in 1956.  

Turkey had become a strategically located member of NATO. Churchill was apoplectic when Iran’s democratic parliament voted to nationalize Iranian oil.  With assistance of the CIA, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was deposed in 1953. Iran became the CIA’s first of an estimated 80 cases of “regime change,” and the Shah became America’s pointsman in the Middle East.  The consequences are still with us.  

The United Nations Security Council in 1977 determined that apartheid in South Africa constituted a threat to international peace and security, and imposed a mandatory arms embargo. In response, the apartheid government spent hundreds of billions of rand on sanctions-busting.  

Israel, Britain, France, the US and other countries flouted the embargo.  All that money spent on armaments and wars in Angola dismally failed to defend apartheid but, ironically, speeded its collapse through the international banking sanctions campaign. 

With support of the CIA, International Signal Corporation provided South Africa with state-of-the-art missile technology.  Israel provided the technology for nuclear weapons and drones. In contravention of both German arms export regulations and the UN arms embargo, Rheinmetall in 1979 shipped an entire ammunition plant to Boskop outside Potchefstroom. 

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 overthrew the Shah’s despotic regime.  More than 40 years later successive US governments are still paranoid about Iran, and still intent on “regime change.” The Reagan administration instigated an eight year war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s in an attempt to reverse the Iranian revolution. 

The US also encouraged numerous countries – including South Africa and Germany – to supply massive quantities of armaments to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  To this purpose, Ferrostaal became the coordinator of a German war consortium comprising Salzgitter, MAN, Mercedes Benz, Siemens, Thyssens, Rheinmetall and others to manufacture everything in Iraq from agricultural fertilizer to rocket fuel, and chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, the Rheinmetall factory at Boskop was working around the clock supplying artillery shells for South African produced and exported G5 artillery.  Armscor’s G5 artillery had originally been designed by a Canadian, Gerald Bull and were intended to deliver either tactical battlefield nuclear warheads or, alternatively, chemical weapons. 

Prior to the revolution, Iran had supplied 90 percent of South Africa’s oil requirements but these supplies were cut off in 1979.  Iraq paid for South African armaments with desperately needed oil.  That weapons-for-oil trade between South Africa and Iraq amounted to US$4.5 billion.

With foreign assistance (including South Africa), Iraq by 1987 had established its own missile development programme and could launch missiles capable of reaching Tehran. The Iraqis had used chemical weapons against Iranians since 1983, but in 1988 unleashed them against Kurdish-Iraqis who Saddam accused of having collaborated with the Iranians. Timmerman records:

“In March 1988 the rugged hills surrounding the Kurdish town of Halabja echoed with the sounds of shelling. A group of reporters set out in the direction of Halabja. In the streets of Halabja, which in normal times counted 70 000 inhabitants, were strewn with the bodies of ordinary citizens caught as they tried to flee from some terrible scourge.

They had been gassed with a hydrogen compound the Iraqis had developed with the help of a German company.  The new death agent, made in the Samarra gas works, was similar to the poison gas the Nazis used to exterminate the Jews more than 40 years before.”

Global revulsion, including in the US Congress, helped to bring that war to an end. The Washington Post correspondent, Patrick Tyler who visited Halabja just after the attack estimated that five thousand Kurdish civilians had perished.  Tyler comments:

“The conclusion of the eight year contest brought no peace of the Middle East. Iran, like a defeated Germany at Versailles, was nursing a towering set of grievances against Saddam, the Arabs, Ronald Reagan, and the West.  Iraq ended the war as a regional superpower armed to the teeth with boundless ambition.” 

It is estimated that 182 000 Iraqi Kurds died during Saddam’s reign of terror. After his death, the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq became autonomous but not independent.  The Kurds in Iraq and Syria later became the particular targets of ISIS which, essentially, was equipped with stolen US weapons.  Instead of the Iraqi and US armies, it was the Kurdish peshmerga that eventually defeated ISIS.

Given Rheinmetall’s shameful history during the Nazi era, in flouting the UN arms embargo and its involvements in Saddam’s Iraq, it remains inexplicable that South Africa’s post-apartheid government in 2008 permitted Rheinmetall to take a 51 percent controlling shareholding in Denel Munitions, now known as Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM).

RDM is headquartered at Armscor’s former Somchem factory in the Macassar area of Somerset West, its three other plants being at Boskop, Boksburg and Wellington.  As the Rheinmetall Defence – Markets and Strategy, 2016 document reveals, Rheinmetall deliberately locates its production outside Germany in order to bypass German arms export regulations.

Instead of supplying South Africa’s own “defence” requirements, about 85 percent of RDM’s production is for export.  Hearings at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry have confirmed that Denel was one of the prime targets of the Gupta Brothers “state capture” conspiracies. 

In addition to physical exports of munitions, RDM designs and installs ammunition factories in other countries, most notably including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both notorious for human rights atrocities. Defenceweb in 2016 reported:

“Saudi Arabia’s Military Industries Corporation has opened a munitions factory built in conjunction with Rheinmetall Denel Munitions in a ceremony attended by President Jacob Zuma.

Zuma travelled to Saudi Arabia for a one day visit on 27 March, according to the Saudi Press Agency, which reported that he opened the factory together with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The new facility at al-Kharj (77 kms south of Riyadh) is able to produce 60, 81 and 120 mm mortars, 105 and 155mm artillery shells and aircraft bombs weighing from 500 to 2000 pounds.  The facility is expected to produce 300 shells or 600 mortar rounds a day.

The facility operates under the Saudi Arabian Military Industries Corporation but was built with the assistance of the South African based Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, which was paid approximately US$240 million for its services.”

Following Saudi and UAE military interventions in 2015, Yemen has suffered the world’s worse humanitarian catastrophe.  Human Rights Watch’s reports in 2018 and 2019 argued that in terms of international law countries that continue to supply armaments to Saudi Arabia are complicit in war crimes.

Section 15 of the National Conventional Arms Control Act stipulates that South Africa will not export armaments to countries that abuse human rights, to regions in conflict, and to countries subject to international arms embargoes. Disgracefully, those provisions are not enforced. 

Saudi Arabia and UAE were RDM’s largest clients until global outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2019 finally caused the NCACC to “suspend” those exports.  Seemingly oblivious to its collusion with Saudi/UAE war crimes in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis there, RDM unctuously complained about jobs lost in South Africa.  

Coinciding with that development, the German government prohibited weapons exports to Turkey. Turkey is involved in wars in Syria and Libya but also in human rights abuses of the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In violation of the UN Charter and other instruments of international law, Turkey in 2018 had attacked Afrin in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria. 

In particular, the Germans were concerned that German weapons could be used against Kurdish communities in Syria. Despite global outrage that even included the US Congress, President Trump in October 2019 gave Turkey the go-ahead to occupy northern Syria. Where ever they live, the present Turkish government considers all Kurds to be “terrorists.” 

The Kurdish community in Turkey comprises about 20 percent of the population. With an estimated 15 million people, it is the largest ethnic group in the country. Yet the Kurdish language is suppressed, and Kurdish properties have been confiscated. Thousands of Kurds are reported in recent years to have been killed in clashes with the Turkish army.  President Erdogan seemingly has ambitions to assert himself as the leader of the Middle East and beyond.

My contacts in Macassar alerted me in April 2020 that RDM was busy on a major export contract for Turkey.  To compensate for the suspension of exports to Saudi Arabia and UAE but also in defiance of Germany’s embargo, RDM was supplying munitions to Turkey from South Africa.

Given the obligations of the NCACC, I alerted Minister Jackson Mthembu, the Minister in the Presidency, and Minister Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.  Mthembu and Pandor, respectively, are the chair and deputy chair of the NCACC. Despite the Covid-19 aviation lockdowns, six flights of Turkish A400M freighter aircraft landed at Cape Town airport between April 30 and May 4 to uplift the RDM munitions. 

Only days later, Turkey launched its offensive in Libya.  Turkey has also been arming Azerbaijan, which is currently involved in a war with Armenia.  Articles published in the Daily Maverick and Independent Newspapers prompted questions in Parliament, where Mthembu initially declared that he:

“Was not aware  of any issues related to Turkey had been raised in the NCACC, so they continued to be committed to approving arms that were legitimately ordered by any legitimate government. However, if South African weapons were reported in any way to be in Syria or Libya, it would be in the country’s best interest to investigate and find out how they got there, and who had messed up or misled the NCACC.”

Days later, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula declared that the NCACC chaired by Mthembu had approved the sale to Turkey, and:

“There are no impediments in law to trade with Turkey in terms of our act.  In terms of the act’s provisions, there is always careful analysis and consideration before granting approval.  For now there is nothing preventing us from trading with Turkey.  There isn’t even an arms embargo.”

The Turkish ambassador’s explanation that the munitions were to be used merely for practice training is totally implausible.  It is obviously suspected that RDM munitions were used in Libya during the Turkish offensive against Haftar, and probably also against Syrian Kurds.  Since then I have repeatedly asked for explanations, but there is silence from both the President’s office and DIRCO. Given the corruption associated with South Africa’s arms deal scandal and the arms trade generally, the obvious question remains: what bribes were paid by whom and to whom to authorize those flights? Meanwhile, there are rumours amongst RDM workers that Rheinmetall is planning to close down because it is now being blocked from exporting to the Middle East.  

With Germany having banned arms sales to Turkey, the German Bundestag in conjunction with the UN has scheduled public hearings next year to investigate how German companies such as Rheinmetall deliberately bypass German arms export regulations by locating production in countries such as South Africa where the rule of law is weak.

When the UN Secretary General António Guterres in March 2020 called for a Covid ceasefire, South Africa was one of his original supporters. Those six Turkish A400M flights in April and May highlight the blatant and repeated hypocrisy between South Africa’s diplomatic and legal commitments and reality.  

Also illustrating such contradictions, Ebrahim Ebrahim, the former Deputy Minister of DIRCO, this past weekend released a video calling for the immediate release of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is sometimes referred to as the “Mandela of the Middle East.”

President Nelson Mandela apparently offered Ocalan political asylum in South Africa.  Whilst in Kenya en route to South Africa, Ocalan was kidnapped in 1999 by Turkish agents with assistance from the CIA and the Israeli Mossad, and is now jailed for life in Turkey.  May we assume that Ebrahim was authorised by the Minister and the Presidency to release that video?

Two weeks ago in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the UN, Guterres reiterated:

“Let us come together and realize our shared vision of a better world with peace and dignity for all.  Now is the time for a stepped-up push for peace to achieve a global ceasefire. The clock is ticking. 

Now is the time for a collective new push for peace and reconciliation. And so I appeal for a stepped-up international effort – led by the Security Council – to achieve a global ceasefire before the end of the year.

The world needs a global ceasefire to stop all “hot” conflicts.  At the same time, we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War.”

South Africa will chair the UN Security Council for the month of December.  It provides a unique opportunity for South Africa in the post-Covid era to support the Secretary General’s vision, and to remedy past foreign policy failures.  Corruption, wars and their consequences are now such that our planet has only ten years to transform the future of humanity.  Wars are one of the main contributors to global warming.

Archbishop Tutu and the bishops of the Anglican Church back in 1994 called for a total prohibition on exports of armaments, and for conversion of South Africa’s apartheid era armaments industry to socially productive purposes. Despite tens of billions of rand poured down the drain over the past 26 years, Denel is irredeemably insolvent and should immediately be liquidated.  Belatedly, a commitment to a world beyond war is now imperative. 


Terry Crawford-Browne is World BEYOND War’s Country Coordinator for South Africa

One Response

  1. South Africa has always been at the forefront of Sanctions Busting techniques, and during the Apartheid era, I was an auditor for PWC (formerly Coopers & Lybrand) involved in auditing these sanctions-evading companies. Coal was exported to Germany, via nefarious Jordanian entities, shipped under the flags of Columbian and Australian carriers, directly to the Rhineland. Mercedes was building Unimogs outside Port Elizabeth, for the SA Defence force well into the late eighties, and Sasol was developing oil from coal, with German technology. The Germans have blood on their hands now in Ukraine, and I would not be at all surprised if we don’t see South African produced G5’s delivering Haz-Mat shells into Kyiv before long. This is a business, and too many corporates turn a blind eye for the sake of profits. NATO must be reigned-in and if it takes President Putin to do it, I would not lose any sleep.

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