Armscor : A Riddle Inside an Enigma
The blue glass, light-reflecting round structure on top of the hill off the N1 on the southeast outskirts of Pretoria resembles something from a science fiction movie. Battlestar Galactica, some jokingly call it.
The stories surrounding the history of this building, housing Armscor's headquarters, are equally fantastic. Stories of secret arms deals and the men who made them, whispering on the sidelines with their foreign counterparts at test-firing ranges and military shows. Of sanctions, laws, corruption and bribes; of mafiosi and front companies run by "the MD's mother-in-law's poodle"; of lavish dinners with foreign guests and "girls" in the small, 100-year-old Bavarian-style tower next to it. The tower, Erasmus Castle, is now a heritage site, where the guest book on the piano reveals how impressed guests from South Korea to the United States, France, Holland and Ukraine have been with their hosts' professionalism and hospitality.
Recently Armscor was instrumental in all the transactions in the much talked-about arms deal; the one that cost the South African taxpayer up to R60 billion.
Early in 2003, researchers of the Swiss National Science Foundation set out to ask Armscor some questions. What records did it have of dealings with Switzerland during the apartheid years? It was known already that some Swiss companies, like many others, had traded in weapons with the apartheid regime, but the meticulous Swiss wanted more facts. How many companies? What kind of weapons volume? Did the apartheid regime do the Swiss government favours in return?
Of course the researchers also knew in advance that a military-related institution was not going to open up all its books. Any country has secrets regarding its military capability. But they did expect some response. After all, Armscor now fell under an ANC government.
The Swiss had approached me, together with the South African History Archives at Wits university, for help with an effort to use the new Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to get the required information from Armscor.
We filled in a government-approved PAIA form. We attached some questions. And then there was silence. The department tasked with processing PAIA requests seemed to think its task was to prevent at all costs any information leaving the building. This is, of course, an attitude that permeates many governments as well as the corporate sector all over the world; but that there was a particular uneasiness in Armscor about the nature of things that might be revealed was eloquently underlined by a manager I interviewed : "You don't want me to keep papers so that they may one day see daylight. Arms dealing is a dirty business. You want papers to get lost."
Strangely, that same uneasiness seemed to extend from those who were actually involved in internationally illegal arms deals during the apartheid years to newcomers.
Were arms procurement and sales in Armscor perhaps still not being done in a transparent, straight way, as the recent controversial arms deal also seems to show? Had Armscor not transformed and did everybody know this somewhere deep down inside? Or was the truth much more simple and were the newcomers in the PAIA department simply incompetent?
There was definitely a lot of incompetence evident in the confused, ill-informed, sometimes outright stupid, fob-off responses we got. But to accept that would again beg the question : why did top management appoint individuals so clearly and brazenly incompetent to a department dealing with the release of information to the public?
It has to be said there were exceptions. The legal supervisor of the department was open to the letter and spirit of the new democratic law, and repeatedly encouraged her subordinates to get on with the process, get the records, see what was a state secret and censor or "mask" it as provided for under the law, and release what could be released.
But she was not part of the old boys' (and nowadays also new boys') arms trade network and appeared powerless, or was possibly just swamped with work - as happens to good civil servants who have, one supposes, to make up for a great number of not-so-good ones. For one-and-a-half years the big blue battleship seemed to taunt us : "Take us to court if you can, if you have the money." And we did not have the money to go to court.
Eventually we managed to get the ear of the defence minister. He seemed to understand the importance of access to information : that to achieve democratic transformation of any structure you need to know what is going on in that structure. You don't want to sit on a can of worms with a blindfold on.
The letter the minister wrote us says "the present government has no intention to hide any information, least of all about our difficult past".
He helped us win the battle. Our experience shows that even with the right laws in place, to have them implemented does not only need an effort to use them at grassroots level. It also needs active leadership, active support, from the top. Government minsters and directors-general, please take note.
We have the information now, and some of it is riveting. First, it shows a consensus in the western world that not only must one profit from arms trade, no matter with whom, but that the white West had to support South African whites against black, hungry Africans and dangerous communists worldwide.
Second, and specifically of interest to the researchers in Africa, is the insight papers give to the arms trade between South Africa and the West, and even between the country and the rest of Africa.
But the most significant victory lies, I believe, in the fact that more than one Armscor official, and even the minister's office, have asked for copies of the pending Swiss report so that they can be informed and helped to get to grips with their institution, its practices and its transformational needs.
Evelyn Groenink is a researcher and freelance investigative journalist specialising in sanctions busting and arms trading.
With acknowledgements to Evelyn Groenink and the Sunday Independent.