For a country whose foreign policy is supposedly grounded in human rights and the values of its Constitution, the very existence of Denel has always been something of an anomaly. The state-run arms manufacturer — a rebranding of the apartheid-era Armscor — sells weapons of war, including guns, missiles and helicopters. These weapons are not always used to further democracy.
In recent years, Denel has been repeatedly embroiled in scandal, such as the controversial deals it made with a Gupta-owned company that cost it R3-billion in reputational damage. Alleged corruption and mismanagement have contributed to staggering financial losses. In 2018, the state-owned enterprise was R1.7-billion in the red.
The mess at Denel should force South Africa to ask itself a difficult question: is there really a place for a loss-making arms manufacturer in a 21st century democracy? Instead, Denel’s leadership is seeking out increasingly uncomfortable bedfellows in a desperate bid to bail itself out of trouble.
Earlier this year, the Mail & Guardian reported on negotiations between Denel and Egypt for the sale of 96 Umkhonto-R missiles, designed to shoot down planes and drones. This despite the well-documented human rights violations of the Egyptian government and its armed forces.
This week, the M&G reports that a delegation from Saudi Arabia is currently in South Africa to discuss more business with Denel. The exact nature of the deal is not yet known. Nonetheless, South Africans should be very concerned. The Saudi Arabian government has been repeatedly implicated in serious war crimes in Yemen, and military assistance would risk facilitating further abuses.
Of course, the financial incentive on offer cannot be dismissed out of hand, especially given our struggling economy. But make no mistake: this is a deal with the devil, and the real cost will be recorded not on any balance sheet, but on the nation’s soul.