South African Arms Deal

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A banner on the Central Methodist Mission church in Green Market Square, Cape Town criticising the South African Arms Deal by comparing it to a golden calf.

The Strategic Defence Package, popularly known as the Arms Deal, was a South African military procurement programme undertaken to re-equip the post-apartheid armed forces.[1]

The South African Department of Defence aimed to modernise its defence equipment after decades of apartheid-era sanctions, as well as harbouring a desire to play a larger role in African Peacekeeping missions for the 21st Century.

In 1999, the ANC Government purchased R30 billion ($4.8 billion USD) of defence equipment, ranging from the purchase of modern corvettes, submarines, fighter aircraft, helicopters and trainer aircraft.[2]

From the outset, the Arms Deal was heavily linked to significant bribery and corruption allegations, and that the scale of the purchase was hard to justify given South Africa did not face any international threats.[3] In the years following, numerous ANC officials have been accused of profiteering from the deal, including former Minister of Defence Joe Modise, Chairman of the Committee for Defence Tony Yengeni, and former President Zuma, who as of July 2021 is currently in court facing 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering relating to the deal after charges were reinstated in 2018.[4]

Strategic Review[edit]

After the end of white minority rule in 1994, the ANC Government and the military agreed to invest in the armed forces and modernise its equipment. Decades of international sanctions against the export of military hardware to South Africa had left the country almost entirely reliant on a domestic arms industry, that whilst extremely technologically advanced, was expensive to subsidise and lacked large scale industrial capability.

In 1996, a Defence White Paper underscored that South Africa did not face any significant security threats, and emphasised the lowering of defence spending and adopting a purely defensive military posture. Parliament accepted this view and called for defence expenditure to be kept below R10 billion. The ANC at grass roots level were similarly anxious about reequipping the military, an organisation that had been fighting against them only a few years before. Trevor Manuel, the Finance Minister was concerned about the financial implications of the deal, particularly in a country where millions lived in poverty. [5] [6]

Despite this, political pressure and determination from Defence Minister Joe Modise, as well as European arms companies, pushed through the highly controversial arms deal. Although it faced significant opposition from Jay Naidoo, Joe Slovo and Trevor Manuel, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki gave Modise full support and helped force the deal through. [6]

Final Shortlist

Item / Country Original Request Reduced Illustrative total cost
Corvette Requirement 5 4 R4 Billion
 United Kingdom GEC F3000
 Germany GFC Meko 200/Meko A200
 France La Fayette
 Spain Bazan 59B
Maritime Helicopter for Corvettes 6 4 R1 Billion
 France/ Germany Eurocopter AS 532
 United Kingdom GKN Super Lynx
Submarine Requirement 4 3 R5.5 Billion
 United Kingdom second-hand Upholder-class submarines
 Germany GSC TR1400
 France DCN Scorpene
 Italy S 1600
 Sweden Kockums T192
Lead-in Fighter Trainer Aircraft Requirement 48 24 R6 - 9 Billion
 United Kingdom BAE BAE Systems Hawk
Advanced Light Fighter Aircraft Requirement 48 26 R10.8 Billion
 United Kingdom/ Sweden BAE/SAAB JAS 39 Gripen
Light Utility Helicopter Requirement 60 48 R2 Billion
 Italy Agusta A109
 France/ Germany Eurocopter EC 635
 United States/ Canada Bell 427
A South African Air Force JAS Gripen purchased during the arms deal.

Although many did not dispute updated military equipment was required, the scale of the deal shocked the public. Despite Parliament stating that defence expenditure should be kept below R10 billion, and that South Africa did not face any significant security threats, the eventual total cost of procurement came to over R30 billion and consisted of a whole new generation of military technology. With the threat of illegal fishing from foreign trawlers and potential smuggling being the most likely maritime threats, the decision to purchase four modern German submarines was met with intense questioning. Similarly, the purchase of the next generation fighter aircraft, the Gripen, was scrutinised given that the Air Force already possessed highly capable Cheetahs (local versions of the Mirage), and that the airspace in Southern Africa was entirely peaceful. By the same token, many were quizzical as to why the Government had chosen the BAE Hawk trainer aircraft despite costing twice as much as the Italian alternative and which was preferred by the South African Airforce themselves.[6]

Allegations of Bribery and Corruption[edit]

SAS Spioenkop, one of the four German built frigates controversially procured in the arms deal.

Official investigations were launched into allegations of conflict of interest, bribery and process violations, almost within months of the deal being signed.  

In 2000, a joint investigative team, composed of the auditor general, the public defender, and the national director of public prosecution, scrutinized the Arms Deal for irregularities. In November 2001, their report stated there was no grounds to believe that the government had acted “illegally or improperly”. However, in October 2009, documents provided by Cape Town businessman Richard Young, whose company, CCII Systems, lost the tender for the navy's new corvettes, showed their initial report had been doctored, factual bases had been removed and its conclusions changed.[7]

In October 2001, ANC Chief Whip Tony Yengeni was investigated alongside Jacob Zuma by the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, after allegations of abuse of power were levelled against them. These concerned improper influence in the arms deal, and that personal financial benefit was the result of such influence. Despite stating that there was “prima facie evidence of corruption” against Zuma, Ngcuka was forced to withdraw the investigation due to insufficient evidence to win the case in court. Yengeni, however, was found guilty of one count of fraud in 2003 and sentenced to four years in prison, although he was released after only four months. Daimler Aerospace admitted to paying bribes, as well as providing luxury vehicles to 30 South Africans, including Yengeni, in an effort to secure the ultimately unsuccessful bid to supply fighter aircraft and helicopters.[8]

The SAS Charlotte Maxeke was one of three German-built Type 209 submarines purchased in the arms deal.

The Guardian in 2003 alleged that evidence had been found that showed that BAE Systems had paid significant bribes, in the form of ‘commissions’, to secure government contracts. Investigators believed that BAE paid up to $150 million in ‘commissions’, with much of that money being given to Defence Minister Modise and his special advisor Fana Hlongwane, and even helping to finance the ANC’s 1999 election campaign. Documents also show that a BAE-Saab partnership promised significant investment by way of ‘industrial offsets’ to Conlog, a company of which Modise was a shareholder.[9]

In 2007, Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) requested assistance from the South African Police Service’s elite unit, the Scorpions, in its investigation into the financial accounts of Hlongwane. The SFO later confirmed that more than R1 billion in bribes was paid to eight individuals for ensuring the decision was taken to choose BAE’s Hawks over the cheaper Italian alternative.[10] [6]

In 2010, BAE pleaded guilty to charges of false accounting and making misleading statements, paying more than $400 million in penalties to both the United Kingdom and the United States, so as to end the damaging investigations into questionable payments to secure contracts. The following year, Saab admitted that R24 million was given to South African individuals in order to secure the sale of the Gripen fighter aircraft. Sweden's Channel 4 investigative programme Kalla Fakta (Cold Facts) uncovered the role of Stefan Löfven, a former head of the Swedish industrial union IF Metall and incumbent Prime Minister. In 1999, Löfven was the head of Metall's international section and a good friend of Moses Mayekiso, the former general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Numsa and the South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO) announced their joint support for the Saab Gripen bid. Mayekiso had by then left Numsa to lead Sanco, though he remained influential within the union. Saab would support Numsa in establishing an Industrial School, supported by Metall and another big Swedish union. They allege that R30 million for the school was in reality a bribe for South African politicians.[11]

Similarly, Der Spiegel reported that ThyssenKrupp paid bribes to people, companies, and foundations connected to South Africa in order to secure the frigate and submarine contracts.[12] One of these payments was alone $22 million, and it is alleged that Chippy Shaik, a chief advisor to Modise, requested and received a $3 million commission. Whistle-blower Patricia de Lille alleged in Parliament that she had evidence of three payments made by ThyssenKrupp in 1999, each of R500,000, to the ANC, to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and to the Community Development Foundation, a Mozambique charity associated with Mandela's wife, Graça Machel.[3] The investigation in Germany, undertaken between 2006 and 2010, also exposed that ThyssenKrupp paid R6 million to Tony Yengeni to secure the frigate deal, and paid a total of R300 million in bribes to secure the submarine contract. Two middlemen, Tony Georgiades and Tony Ellingford, were alleged by the investigation to have been paid €16.5 million in order to utilise their claimed access to senior ANC officials. These claims were never taken to trial.[1]

In 2005, financial adviser and businessman Schabir Shaik (brother of Chippy) was jailed for 15 years on two counts of corruption and one count of fraud relating to the arms deal, but served only two years and four months. A close associate of Jacob Zuma, Shaik used his brother’s position within government to secure lucrative arms contracts for Thompson Holdings - a merger of his own company Nkobi Holdings and the French company Thompson-CSF - in connection with the purchase of the new corvettes. It was also shown that Shaik had solicited a bribe of R500,000 ($34,000) per annum for Zuma, in return for Zuma supporting Thomson-CSF and protecting the company from parliamentary scrutiny.

Heavily implicated by the trial of Shaik, Zuma was charged in 2005 with corruption. Due to lengthy and multiple challenges, as well as legal technicalities and backing from a strong faction within the ANC, the corruption trial against Zuma never came to fruition. In April 2009, the Chief Prosecutor dropped more than 700 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering against Zuma, just weeks before he became President, citing phone-tap evidence suggesting political interference.[5]

In 2011, a commission of inquiry was established to further investigate the allegations of bribery and corruption that were linked to the 1999 Arms Deal. In 2016, the commission concluded that they had found no evidence against any government officials of the time. It claimed that money had been paid for purely consultancy services and that no new charges should be brought.[2]

A week later, however, in a case pursued by the opposition, the High Court ruled that Zuma should face charges of corruption of the deal, and that the decision to drop them in 2009 was ‘irrational’. Two months after Zuma's resignation, in April 2018, the Supreme Court backed the decision that charges be reinstated, with Zuma charged with 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud, and money laundering - accepting in total 783 illegal payments. He pleaded not guilty in May 2021. Thompson-CSF, now known as Thales, has similarly been informed it could be criminally tried for the alleged activities of illegal arms dealing.[5]

Only two convictions have been made in relation to the Arms Deal, those of Tony Yengeni and Shabir Shaik, however allegations continue to surface against various other individuals, as well as former Presidents Mbeki, with Zuma facing ongoing criminal charges. Investigations by the United Kingdom and United States resulted in corporate settlements, without personal responsibility, and a similar probe in Germany ultimately cleared ThyssenKrupp.[1]

On 20 July 2021, it was agreed that former South African President Jacob Zuma's criminal trial for the arms deal case would begin on either August 10 or August 13, 2021.[13][14] Zuma was already serving a 15 month prison sentence for contempt of court.[15][16][17][18] Despite delays and reports of health problems for the ex-South African President, Zuma's arms deal trial had resumed by 21 September 2021.[19][20] On 26 October 2021, a bid to remove state prosecutor Billy Downer from the case was dismissed by KwaZulu-Natal High Court Judge Piet Koen.[21][22]


  1. ^ a b c "The South African Arms Deal – Compendium of Arms Trade Corruption". Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  2. ^ a b "South Africa's Jacob Zuma says no evidence of arms deal fraud". BBC News. 21 April 2016. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  3. ^ a b "Bright hopes betrayed". the Guardian. 10 January 2007. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  4. ^ "The ANC's awful choice".
  5. ^ a b c "South Africa arms deal that landed Zuma in court: What you need to know". BBC News. 6 April 2018. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d Johnson, R. W. (2010). South Africa's brave new world : the beloved country since the end of apartheid. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-100032-9. OCLC 502046914.
  7. ^ "WebCite query result". Retrieved 15 July 2021. Cite uses generic title (help)
  8. ^ Johannesburg, Mungo Soggot in (4 October 2001). "ANC official charged with corruption". the Guardian. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  9. ^ "BAE faces corruption claims around world". the Guardian. 14 June 2003. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  10. ^ "Arms deal: Who got R1bn in pay-offs?". The Mail & Guardian. 11 January 2007. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  11. ^ "Swedish TV reveals fresh claims in South Africa's arms deal". The Mail & Guardian. 22 November 2012. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  12. ^ SPIEGEL, Markus Dettmer, Georg Bönisch, DER. "Dubious Defense Deal: Bribery Allegations Cloud German Ship Sale to South Africa". Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  13. ^ "South African court postpones Zuma's corruption trial to August". Al Jazeera. 20 July 2021. Retrieved 20 July 2021.
  14. ^ AFP (20 July 2021). "Corruption trial of S.Africa's Zuma to resume August 10". Yahoo News. Retrieved 20 July 2021.
  15. ^ Perreira, Ernsie (12 July 2021). "Constitutional Court reserves judgment in Zuma case". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2021.
  16. ^ "CONCOURT RESERVES JUDGMENT IN ZUMA'S RESCISSION BID". Eyewitness News. 12 July 2021. Retrieved 13 July 2021.
  17. ^ "Judgment reserved in Zuma's rescission application". SABC. 12 July 2021. Retrieved 20 July 2021.
  18. ^ Palley, Kailene (12 July 2021). "ConCourt reserves judgment on Jacob Zuma's bid to have prison sentence rescinded". IOL. Retrieved 20 July 2021.
  19. ^ "S.Africa's Zuma seeks to replace prosecutor in arms trial". Reuters. 21 September 2021. Retrieved 14 October 2021.
  20. ^ "South Africa resumes Zuma's protracted arms deal trial". Al Jazeera. 21 September 2021. Retrieved 14 October 2021.
  21. ^ Maughan, Karyn (27 October 2021). "How Judge Piet Koen's ruling puts Jacob Zuma in a very tight corner". News24. Retrieved 4 November 2021.
  22. ^ "Zuma loses plea to remove prosecutor, corruption trial to start in April". Africanews. 26 October 2021. Retrieved 4 November 2021.

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