Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-03-19 Reporter: Stephen Laufer Editor:

Armscor Ostrich Lives On

Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-03-19
Reporter Stephen Laufer
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GERMANY's iron 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 explain it?" 

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 neighbour."  

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.