/ 16 November 2023

SA trade in military hardware with Israel needs scrutiny

Israel Hamas War
An Israeli army armoured fighting vehicle returns to a staging area from the border with Gaza on November 15, 2023 in Southern Israel. More than month after Hamas's Oct. 7 attacks, the country's military has continued its sustained bombardment of the Gaza Strip and launched a ground invasion to vanquish the militant group that governs the Palestinian territory. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

On 8 November 2023, South African MP Zwelivelile “Mandla” Mandela issued a media statement calling for all arms and ordinance sales to “apartheid Israel” to be halted immediately. 

He called on the minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan and the chairperson of Armscor  Phillip Dexter to announce an immediate arms embargo. 

He further demanded that the leadership of Denel, the state-owned arms manufacturer, cease sales of military ordinances to Israel. In addition, he emphasised the need for parliamentary oversight in ensuring that the National Conventional Arms Control Act of 2002 was fully implemented. 

This statement followed the social media frenzy around a South African Revenue Services (Sars) report that indicated exports to Israel included vehicles, aircraft and vessels. 

Trade between South Africa and Israel reached its peak in 2012 at $1.2 billion. By 2022, that figure  had more than halved. This could be attributed to the hardline approach that South Africa took in its relations with Israel after the 2012 ANC elective conference in which the governing party endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

New regulations were introduced in 2012 by the department of trade and industry, which required all products from Israel and occupied Palestine to be clearly labelled as such. 

Since the end of apartheid, exports of South African products to Israel have decreased at an annual rate of 1.71%, from $400 million in 1995 to $255 million in 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic also appears to have had a significant impact on the decrease in trade between Israel and South Africa. 

Indications are that trade has increased in 2023, compared to the 2020 to 2022 period. 

SA exports to Israel

For the calendar year 2022, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) reported that the total South African military hardware and munitions exported worldwide amounted to R4.679 billion, up from R3.353 billion in 2021. The NCACC report, however, did not reflect any sales to Israel. Armscor has also indicated that there are no sales of weapons from South Africa to Israel.

This does not correlate with recent Sars export figures nor with the UN Comtrade database on international trade, which indicates “machinery, nuclear reactors, boilers” of $1.86 million in 2022; “aircraft or spacecraft” at $1.10 million; “vehicles other than railway” at $570 000 and “arms and ammunition, parts and accessories” at $393 000. 

The lack of correlation between the figures raises concern as to whether there might be attempts to circumvent the South African regulations on arms sales. 

SA companies and products

Some South African companies in the arms and related industries might be trading with Israel, though it would seem that these sales are not registered with the NCACC or fall outside the provisions of the act. The discrepancies would have to be investigated further. 

ALTI, a Knysna-based South African company, produces unmanned aircraft (UAVs), focusing on long-range and endurance vertical take-off and landing drones. The aircraft are designed to fly multiple payloads, complete smart autonomous flight missions and provide the situational awareness needed for security and surveillance operations. 

In 2021, iSTAR from the Avnon Group, which specialises in the drone field, acquired ALTI for about $7.75 million. 

The CEO of the HLS division of Avnon Group, Aviad Matza, announced that, “Operations in South Africa will continue, but at the same time, we will start producing UAVs in a new co-production centre for the group’s subsidiaries based in Israel,” noting that there is a growing demand for UAVs from military and government forces and boasting that ALTI has some of the most advanced capabilities in the world in this field.

Paramount Group, founded in South Africa, is Africa’s largest private defence manufacturer. The company has recently diversified its portfolio and has moved its headquarters to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. 

This move is believed to have been influenced by the declining market in South Africa, the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 and the increased pressure on the defence industry after the exposure by this author of South African exports to countries in the Middle East involved in the conflict in Yemen. 

The decision that followed by the NCACC to suspend exports and enforce end-user certificates pushed companies such as Paramount Group to seek means to circumvent the regulations. 

Paramount Group still has production plants in South Africa. It was announced in 2021 that the group had opened an office in Tel Aviv, in Israel, a clear indication of the prospective business. 

The company manufactures combat vehicles and aircraft components; composite rotor blades for medium-lift helicopters (an item listed on the Sars document) and naval vessels through its subsidiary, Paramount Maritime. 

Palestinian-rights groups held a protest on 10 November 2023 outside the Paramount offices in Midrand, in Gauteng, in which they called for the shut-down of the company. A statement issued by activists called out the executive chairman Ivor Ichikowitz for what they termed his staunch support for the Zionist cause and alleged war crimes in funding genocide and ethnic cleansing in occupied Palestine, as well as in Mozambique and Kazakhstan. 

Paramount Group issued a statement on 14 November 2023 denying the allegations, dismissing the action as anti-Semitic, and affirming that the company has operated legally for almost 30 years “in strict adherence to South Africa’s and UN arms control regulations”. 

The Israel Navy is known to have deployed a South African-manufactured vessel, the Nachshol [Nashal] Reconnaissance Boat Stingray Interceptor 2000, off the coast of Eilat. The catamaran-style boat, constructed by the Cape Town-based Stingray Marine group, was built according to Israel Navy specifications and attached to the Dabur Class Patrol fleet. The vessels have a civilian look but are equipped with surveillance and combat systems. 

It is believed that the Israel Defence Forces still utilises the Armsel Striker, a shotgun designed during the apartheid era as an anti-riot weapon.  

Since the Ukraine war, prices of the metals used by the Israel Aerospace Industries have soared and imports from Russia have been limited. Israel has therefore faced an unexpected shortage of metals and has been seeking to diversify its sources.

Nickel and titanium are essential to the production of its F-16I Sufa and F-35I Adir fighter jets and the Merkava IV tank. These metals could be procured from South Africa and would not be governed by the NCACC regulations. 

South African use of Israeli products

Israeli exports to South Africa amounted to $251.46 million during 2022, according to the UN Comtrade database on international trade. Arms and ammunition are not listed but vehicles, aircraft and miscellaneous items are included. It is believed that approximately $80 million is within the services sector, including software, cybersecurity and technology. 

Israel is one of the top 10 exporters of arms and weaponry. Unlike South Africa and like-minded countries, Israel is not impeded by ethical regulations on the sale of arms. Sales from Israel to South Africa should therefore also be on the radar, despite the significant imbalance in trade figures. 

Israel and the closely aligned military industrial complex has marketed “battle-tested” or “combat- proven” surveillance and military equipment, arms, ammunition and technology that have been tested in the occupied territories against the Palestinians. 

It should be noted that one of Israel’s largest defence companies Elbit operates out of the UK, showing the global reach of the occupation. Third-country sales are often a means to circumvent stringent regulations in the arms trade. 

The South African Air Force has previously used Israel’s Litening III targeting pod on the Saab JAS 39 Gripen combat aircraft. 

The SA Navy has, in the past, also used the EL/M-2208 air search radar. It was not clear at the time of writing whether these systems were still in use and if there is still a relationship with the Israeli supplier. 

In 2007, the South African Police Service procured water cannons and riot-control gear, which included skunk spray, from Israel’s Beit Alfa Technologies. This was used against Fees Must Fall protesters in 2015. 

Kibbutz Beit Alfa enjoyed a profitable relationship with the apartheid regime in the supply of anti-riot vehicles that were used to oppress the disenfranchised communities in townships. 

Following the media statement by MP Mandela, the director-general of the department of international relations and co-operation Zane Dangor stated in an interview with Newzroom Afrika on 8 November 2023 that while South Africa has not taken a decision on economic sanctions against Israel, it might be a matter to be considered more broadly, at an international level, to address the wrongful act of apartheid and consider non-violent countermeasures such as divestment. 

He further indicated that the government would be investigating the veracity of social media allegations that South Africa might have sold arms to Israel, in contravention of the National Conventional Arms Control Act of 2002. 

Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and international relations strategist.