SOUTH AFRICA'S plan to double arms exports by the end of the year has sparked heated debate in a country searching for government savings to fund costly socioeconomic development programs.
The debate led to the May 24 lifting of the United Nations Security Council's 17-year-old mandatory Arms Embargo and the voluntary Arms Boycott, which outlawed the sale of arms to South Africa and the purchase of arms exports from South Africa.
But human rights organizations and Western diplomats have expressed concern about the danger of fueling armed conflicts in Africa and supplying renegade states like Libya, Iraq, and Sudan.
``The lifting of these embargoes is very significant, because it will result in the normalization of South Africa's international arms trade,'' says Tielman de Waal, chief executive of Armscor, the marketing arm of the country's flourishing arms industry.
``There is a real concern that South African arms could again land up in the hands of pariah states,'' argues a Western diplomat, noting that South African G.5 artillery guns had reached Iraq during its conflict with Iran and were used against US forces in the Gulf war.
But Armscor officials insist that arms sales will be subject to stringent export control measures that are in line with international treaties and practices.
``We will deal only on a government-to-government basis,'' says Armscor spokesman Bertus Celliers, noting that the company was committed to openness and accountability on its export sales.
South Africa is a recent signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the chemical and biological conventions, complies with the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime, and has recently introduced stricter export control mechanisms.
But recent disclosures that South Africa sold $5.9 million of small arms - mainly automatic rifles, grenades, and mortars - to Rwanda in 1992 has highlighted the moral problem.
Mr. De Waal says the arms sales to Rwanda were halted in October last year when it became clear that a conflict could arise there. But Rwanda has been the arena of recurring ethnic conflicts between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups over the past three decades.
President Nelson Mandela announced Friday that South Africa would provide a field hospital and 50 armored personnel carriers toward an African effort to solve that conflict.
``The controversy over Rwanda highlights the pitfalls of South Africa becoming a major arms supplier in Africa,'' the Western diplomat says.
Despite stringent UN restrictions, South Africa developed a formidable arms industry during the apartheid era. It is the world's 10th largest arms exporter.
Mr. Mandela has given his blessing to increased arms sales, but has stressed that careful steps will be taken to ensure that arms do not end up in the hands of governments that could use them to suppress their own people or pose a threat to world peace.
But the government of national unity has inherited a defense force that has already been subjected to four years of successive budget cuts and the dismantling of its nuclear and missile manufacturing industries. The post-1989 budget cuts have caused turnover in the defense industry to plummet 60 percent and has led to the scrapping of 65,000 jobs. A recent multiparty inquiry into the arms industry has warned that the survival of the industry is at stake.
The new government is under pressure from within its ranks to cut defense spending further to help fund its Reconstruction and Development Program - a detailed plan for socioeconomic development to counteract the legacy of apartheid.
But defense analysts argue that defense spending will have to be increased in the short-term to fund integration into the new South African National Defense Force of up to 45,000 members of former liberation and apartheid armies. They argue that increased capital spending will also be needed to ensure that the arms industry remains competitive.
At present, South African arms exports account for only 0.5 percent of the international arms trade and provide jobs for a mere 15,000 people in a country with black unemployment levels running at more than 40 percent. Armscor has vowed to more than double arms sales by the end of the current year to some $500 million, thereby providing a further 20,000 jobs.
``It's foreign exchange and jobs that we are talking about,'' says Brig. Bill Sass, a former defense force officer now with the independent Institute for Defense Politics. Defense Minister Joe Modise, former commander of the ANC's Spear of the Nation, has argued strongly in favor of increased defense spending and supports Armscor's plan to increase its arms sales.