Publication: Cape Times Issued: Date: 2004-07-27 Reporter: Terry CrawfordBrowne

Boom for Local Arms Industry Could Blow Up in Our Faces



Cape Times

Date 2004-07-27


Terry Crawford-Browne

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Your report (July 22) that exports of ammunition are "set to sky-rocket" following the lifting of the US embargo against imports of South African armaments, and that contract negotiations with General Dynamics are far advanced, refers. Denel's Swartklip and Somchem facilities in the Western Cape will be the likely "beneficiaries".

Let us think of the consequences for Capetonians before celebrating a role in equipping the US Army with shells for use against Iraqis, Afghans or the next victims of America's "war on terror".

The hardening agent for artillery warheads is depleted uranium, use of which is internationally condemned as a crime against humanity. It is the substance blamed for the birth of deformed babies in Iraq and former Yugoslavia, and the illnesses of 250 000 American soldiers of the first Gulf War.

A United Nations resolution classifies munitions with depleted uranium as being illegal weapons of mass destruction.

Swartklip (between Mitchell's Plain and Khayelitsha) is where the apartheid-era's chemical and biological warfare programme were tested. An even more grotesque use of that land is now in prospect. Depleted uranium causes chemical poisoning of the body, but it is also radiologically hazardous as it spontaneously burns on impact, creating tiny aerosolised glass particles which are small enough to be inhaled. These uranium oxide particles emit all types of radiation and can be carried in the air over long distances.

Ingested particles then attack the lungs, blood, bones, kidneys and other organs of the body. The presence of depleted uranium ceramic aerosols poses a long-term threat to human health and the environment.

Two years ago I brought 16 members of the Ex-Swartklip Workers Committee to Parliament, where they told their stories to horrified parliamentarians. Parliamentary resolve to investigate what goes on at Swartklip withered when central government intervened to prohibit a parliamentary inquiry.

The bureaucrats at the Department of Environmental Affairs agree that Swartklip is an environmental nightmare, but plead that it is not a priority. Almost a year has elapsed since Swartklip's teargas leak.

It was evident then that Swartklip had no disaster management plan and apparently nothing has changed.

The Khaya-Plain and Districts Anti-Pollution Coalition in January this year asked the city council to require thorough and independent soil, water and air tests at Swartklip, plus health tests for existing and former workers and residents.

Six months on, that request has become a political football.

The Cameron Commission of 1994/95 short-sightedly accepted assurances from the government that South Africa would follow a responsible arms trade policy. The sad reality is, the dirtier the war, the greater the certainty that supplies of SA weapons will be involved.

Yet weapons exports are negligible as a percentage of our exports. And Denel is expected to have lost R800 million of taxpayers' money in its last financial year.

For how much longer are Capetonians to be held to ransom by the war industry?

With acknowledgements to Terry Crawford-Browne and the Cape Times.