Arms Deal 2: Here We Go Again?

By Dale T. McKinley · 19 Aug 2013

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Picture: Photo de l
Picture: Photo de l'auteur/Wikimedia Commons.

Justifiably, lots of media and public attention has been given over lately to the continued fallout from the massively corrupt first arms deal. Like a long-term unwanted house guest who simply won’t go away, the first arms deal is still with us almost twenty years after it was first conceived. In immediate terms this is largely due to the various sagas around the Zuma-appointed Seriti Commission of Inquiry which are seemingly once again set to confirm the short-term triumph of personal and party factional power politics over the pursuit of justice and exposing the truth.

However, as our collective gaze now turns to see whether the Commission – which has embarked on its long-delayed hearings this week – is going to be able to restore its tattered credibility or descend into a complete whitewash, there is a second elephant ambling around the heavily soiled arms procurement room that has not received nearly as much attention; a second arms deal.

If our memories haven’t been completely bamboozled by the interminable journey of institutional cover-ups, political manipulation and arrogance of power following-on from the first arms deal, then we will remember that the actual procurement of arms was preceded by South Africa’s first ever post-apartheid Defence Review in 1998.

As it should have, that initial Review, which was accompanied by fairly extensive public consultations, laid out the expected costs for the three ‘legs’ of the Department of Defence (DoD) budget needs/requests; operational, personnel and capital expenditure.  In respect of capital expenditure (i.e. the purchase of new arms/equipment), the recommended budget allocation was just over R5 billion. And yet, as we now know, the amount of public monies spent so far has passed the R100 billion mark and the public purse has yet to be closed.

Fifteen years down the road and we have another Defence Review preceding what will soon become South Africa’s second post-apartheid arms deal. Having gone through a limited programme of public consultation and three drafts since the inception of the Review Committee in July 2011, it is presently sitting with the government’s Justice Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster for final vetting before being passed on to the Cabinet and then Parliament.

The path towards the potentially sumptuous feast that awaits has all the hallmarks and more of another arms boondoggle.  From the start, one of the clearest signs has been the inclusion of ANC money-man and convicted arms deal fraudster Tony Yengeni in the Defence Review Committee, alongside ‘consultants’ and senior personnel either from within, or closely associated with, the arms industry. No surprise then that despite the wholly underwhelming admittance that the first arms deal “has proven to be far more costly than planned”, the draft Review makes no serious attempt to specifically quantify the costs (either actual or projected) of new capital expenditure/arms purchases and there is not one reference to the Seriti Commission. 

Instead, the draft Review provides a short-sleeved summary of four “planning baselines”, each accompanied by an indicative macro-budget as follows: 1) “Status Quo - Defence in Decline”: R38 billion a year (1,1% of GDP) plus a capital injection of R5 billion; 2)”Establishing a Sustainable Peace-Time Force”: R51 billion a year (1,7% of GDP), plus a capital injection of R6 billion; 3) “Capable of Responding to Increased Strategic Instability”: R83 billion a year (2,7% of GDP), plus a capital injection of R7 billion; 4) “Surging to National Defence”: R100 billion a year (3,2% of GDP), plus a capital injection of R12 billion.

According to Rob Thomson of the Ceasefire Campaign (one of the few civil society organisations that has consistently made submissions and critically engaged with the Review process), the Review Committee “appears to be aiming for baseline 2, with baselines 3 and 4 as ideals or as justifications to Cabinet and Parliament for agreeing to a lower level.” Further, Thomson points out that “it is not clear” how the purchase of “weapons and other capital items … will be met out of the budgetary implications of the baselines.”

What the Review Committee does though, in place of clear and transparent budgeting, is to make a weak case for how the Defence budget has been ‘dwindling” over the last many years. To do this an unreferenced and statistical sleight-of-hand is adopted wherein the overall Defence budget is measured against South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Due to the substantial growth of the country’s GDP over the last decade or so, the budget thus appears to have “dwindled” when in fact in has increased quite substantially in real terms, especially after the first arms deal was concluded. As Ceasefire told the Committee in one of its submissions, data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that South African military spending in absolute terms (i.e., in US dollars adjusted to allow for inflation to 2010) has returned to the relatively high levels of 1993.

This propagandistic attempt to obscure a rational and informed economic debate around increases in the Defence budget by pleading DoD poverty, is tied to the abject failure to recognise that significant increases in military expenditure will have a direct and damaging impact on expenditure aimed at addressing South Africa’s daunting human security needs; even more so in a period of generalised socio-economic crisis for the majority of the population.

To try and muddy the waters even more, the Review engages in constructed ‘scare talk’ around imminent threats to the country’s borders/coastlines, crafts grandiose ideas about South Africa’s sub-imperial role in the rest of the continent and adopts a “threat-independent” strategic approach which Ceasefire has rightfully argued, “requires preparation for the worst conceivable contingencies without regard for their probabilities” or costs. Add to this is the fact that much of what will occur with the Review from here on, as it makes its way to Cabinet and the Parliament, will be covered in officially sanctioned secrecy and a picture very similar to what happened with the first arms deal emerges ever more clearly.

We might well have a muscular military alongside even more muscular bank accounts for the political elites and arms industry insiders within the next 10-15 years, but I would hazard a guess that this will do very little for the security and well-being of those in whose name it is being pursued. The elephant is almost ready to eat.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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