Armscor Ostrich Lives On
chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, valued them.
Now Armscor, SA's state weapons procurement agency, seems to have discovered them too: the virtues of Germany's coastal regions.
Bismarck once remarked
that if the world was about to end, he would head for Mecklenburg, then a
largely agricultural region abutting the Baltic Ocean, and now one of the five
"new" east German federal states. His reasoning: things are so
backward there, everything happens 50 years later.
An ideal region for
the officials charged with overseeing the purchase of billions of rands worth of
corvettes, submarines, fighter jets and helicopters. This is a group which seems
not to have heard about SA's new democracy, especially its attempts at openness
and transparency. Instead, it appears still to be doing all it can to cling to
practices and traditions forged in the dark ages when the apartheid war machine
was forced to conduct its business out of the sight and earshot of the public.
While the foreign
hardware contractors shout their successes in contracting SA companies as
civilian or defence offset suppliers and happily trumpet the virtues of their
products, and senior navy and air force officers seem to have perpetual grins of
satisfaction on their faces, the men from the glass palace outside Pretoria have
taken Bismarck's advice.
More at home with the
way things were before 1994, they have retreated to an inner Mecklenburg. Their
business culture remains shrouded in mystery, they are determinedly opaque,
uncommunicative, unhelpful, and unavailable. Take a recent visit to Hamburg by
this reporter. "Get a handle on where the projects are, find out what you
can," said the editor. "Sure," said the shipyard's representative
in SA, "we'd be happy to show you around, as we are just going into
production on the first corvette."
A day away from Blohm
and Voss, the prime supplier within the German Frigate Consortium, and things
were not looking quite so rosy. Monosyllabic answers to questions about times
and programmes all round. The result of a sudden attack of the cold feet by the
client, Armscor, it emerged. Still, a little gentle pressure goes a long way.
The shipbuilders, who know that the best way to make a journalist suspect that
something is being hidden is to refuse to talk, relented: the trip was on.
But there was to be no
meeting with Adm Jonny Kamerman and his band of 15 Armscor and navy officials
overseeing the maritime contracts in northern Germany. A very friendly and very
apologetic Armscor official resident in Hamburg said his hands were tied:
"orders from higher up".
The same story from
Armscor chief Ron Haywood, reached by telephone. "Sorry, we have our
instructions not to interact with the media."
Pity nobody spoke to the chief of the navy, Adm
Johan Retief. Asked about the secrecy later, his was the response of a
thoroughly modern naval officer: "I don't have a problem with the media
talking to our team. They are there to do an important job, so why shouldn't we
Not that military
secrecy ever helped the old SA Defence Force much anyway. One navy wife tells
the story of being posted to Israel with her husband while the first strikecraft,
the predecessors to the corvettes, were being built in Haifa. Apartheid paranoia
was in full swing, and she was not allowed to know why the family had been
posted to Israel. An Israeli neighbour knew, of course, and told the lady, who
gleefully reported to her husband that she now understood the reason for them
being away from home for so long. His reaction: "Stop talking to the
That Armscor ostrich
is still alive and kicking. But it is heading for trouble in a country
developing an increasingly robust debating culture. A country where a news
blackout stimulates rather than kills debate.
For Defence Minister
Mosiuoa Lekota, all of this creates something of a challenge. For a start, he
should ensure that Armscor's officials stop inhaling too much air wafting
westward from Mecklenburg to the dockyards of Hamburg and Kiel.
With acknowledgement to Stephen Laufer and Business Day.