The South African National Defence Force is about to send a gift of helicopters and spares to its Zimbabwean counterparts, raising the spectre they will be used in a military-backed campaign to put President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party back in power in polls expected this year.
The Mail & Guardian has seen the confidential minutes of a meeting in Cape Town two months ago between defence chiefs of the two countries.
Under the heading "disposal of Alouette III helicopters and spares", the minutes noted that "the administrative processes in the SANDF have been finalised and the equipment will soon be handed over to the ZDF [Zimbabwe Defence Forces]".
The department of defence confirmed shortly before going to press that "all processes for the disposal have been completed and the airframes and spares are ready for dispatch to that country as a donation".
Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections by the end of March, although they are widely expected to be delayed for some months. Apprehension is building in civil society and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that the military will step in, as it did during the violent 2008 presidential run-off to save Mugabe.
The aged but versatile Alouette III, operated by the military in both countries since the 1960s, would be a force multiplier for the ZDF, providing fast access to rural areas.
Zimbabwe is under European and United States weapons sanctions, hampering its air force's efforts to keep its handful of Alouette III and Agusta-Bell light utility helicopters in the air.
The ZDF notoriously stepped in to back Mugabe in the 2008 presidential run-off after the MDC beat Zanu-PF in parliamentary elections. Operation waVhotera Papi (For whom did you vote?) reportedly involved a systematic, brutal crackdown on MDC supporters.
ZDF chief General Constantine Chiwenga openly backs Zanu-PF, and is alleged in media reports and by the MDC to be preparing a campaign to support Zanu-PF's election efforts and to have undermined the current unity government.
The minutes seen by the M&G appear to reflect the ZDF's disdain for power-sharing. The Zimbabwean delegation was quoted as reporting: "The smooth governing of the country remained untenable owing to divergent political ideologies of the political parties in the inclusive government."
The minutes are of the defence committee of the seventh session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe Joint Permanent Commission on Defence and Security, a standing bilateral body. Meeting at Cape Town's Mount Nelson Hotel between November 21 and 23, the committee was co-chaired by South African army chief Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo and his Zimbabwean counterpart, Lieutenant General Philip Valerio Sibanda.
Following allegations that his troops were campaigning for Zanu-PF in rural areas when elections were expected in 2011, Sibanda told the state-owned Herald newspaper: "We have troops in various parts of the country doing training and … assisting in various government departments like health and agriculture. It is unfortunate that we have some people who think that when they see army officers in a particular area … they are undertaking political activities."
More recently, allegations surfaced of the military going on a vehicle shopping spree in anticipation of elections. The Zimbabwe Independent reported in November that the ZDF was buying about 1 000 Isuzu bakkies, complementing Zanu PF's acquisition of 550 cars, the latter "to ensure its officials and foot soldiers reach all corners of the country to mobilise voters".
The quantity of Aloettes airframes and spares to be handed to the ZDF could not be establishedthis week.
The South African Air Force retired its fleet of Alouette IIIs between 2005 and 2007, when they were replaced by Agusta light utility helicopters ordered in the arms deal. The defence department said in Parliament in 2008 that 17 Alouettes had been stripped of their guns and were for sale.
The Zimbabwe arms embargo is not binding on South Africa, because the Russians and Chinese vetoed a 2008 United Nations Security Council attempt to extend sanctions.
Exports of military hardware from South Africa must be sanctioned by the Cabinet's National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), chaired by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe. Radebe's spokesperson, Mthunzi Mhaga, said the Alouettes and spares did not "fall within the NCACC's parameters of control" under its enabling legislation.
The NCACC is apparently relying on the classification of the helicopters as "civilian" after their guns were stripped out, though both the giver and the recipient are military.
The defence department on Thursday defended the donation, saying that it stemmed from "a decision that was taken by the former and first minister of defence, Joe Modise, in 1997 when [the Alouettes] were being phased out. How the donation of the spares to the ZDF relate to the forthcoming elections in that country is difficult to understand.
"The SANDF would like to place it on record that it has a bilateral agreement with the Zimbabwe Defence Force and a number of exchanges in various fields between the two defence forces have taken place and will continue."
Zimbabwe army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Alphious Makotore asked for questions to be physically presented to Colonel Overson Mugwisi based at Zimbabwe Defence House in Harare. For safety reasons, the M&G's Harare correspondent did not do this.
MDC spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora said on Thursday his party was aware of a plot to beef up the military before elections in support of Mugabe.
"The military chiefs have already stated their objectives and who they will back for president.
"In our respectful view the military is political and it is evident that it will neither respect the views of the people, nor recognise an MDC victory in the coming election." – Additional reporting by M&G Harare correspondent
A legend of the skies
The Alouette III helicopter, which has flown Southern African skies for more than half a century, is a utilitarian machine, known for its durability and affectionately called the draadkar, or "wire car" – a comment on its not very fetching appearance.
Developed by the French in the late 1950s, the Alouette debuted in both the South African and Rhodesian militaries in 1962.
Over the next two decades, the South African Air Force purchased 118 of them, and the Rhodesian Air Force Alouette fleet grew to an estimated 47. When the South African fleet was being retired in 2007, SAAirforce.co.za effusively described it as "a legend in the South African Air Force. Doing all it was asked and more, this amazing helicopter served for 44 years and the fleet flew more than 346 000 hours.
"The Alouette III will be remembered for its durability in the challenging African environment … It was loved by its pilots and crew, feared by its enemies and regarded as a saviour by those it rescued from a mountain ledge or a flood-devastated area."
Among the many missions over the decades, South Africa's Alouettes were used in the Angolan and Rhodesian bush wars, alongside Rhodesia's machines in the latter case.
Zimbabwe used them during the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1998 and 2003. A number were reportedly shot down or written off. President Robert Mugabe's forces were left hungry for spares. But the arms embargoes made replacements hard to come by. – Craig McKune
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.