THE new South African government, grappling with the military's past role in destabilizing neighboring states, could soon become a world leader in the detection and destruction of land mines.
Joining an international campaign, on July 29 South Africa imposed an immediate moratorium on the marketing, export, and transit of all types of land mines in line with an October 1993 United Nations resolution urging member states to outlaw all antipersonnel mines and booby traps.
In doing so, South Africa became the 39th UN member state to comply with the 1980 UN convention on weapons regarding land mines and inhumane weapons.
``The Ministry of Defense is currently investigating the implications of converting the moratorium on exports to a total ban,'' said Deputy Defense Minister Ronnie Kasrils, a former intelligence chief of Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress.
Mr. Kasrils was speaking at a demonstration of de-mining techniques on July 29 organized by the government's armaments agency, Armscor, for the media and representatives of the international community at this remote military test site about 20 miles northwest of Pretoria.
He noted that the South African moratorium went further than the UN request for a ban on antipersonnel mines because it includes antitank mines, other types of vehicle mines, and the controversial claymore mines - a booby trap that indiscriminately kills and maims.
``We are prepared to place our counter-mine expertise at the disposal of the international community to help minimize the senseless killing of civilians, including helpless women and children,'' he said.
``This way we will show that our country is claiming the moral high ground internationally,'' he added.
The South African move was immediately hailed by the International Committee of the Red Cross as a major contribution to its international campaign to outlaw the manufacture, sale, and use of all mines and inhumane weapons.
``We welcome the announcement by the deputy minister and are encouraged by the intention to work toward a total ban on all types of mines,'' said Vincent Nicod, head of the ICRC delegation in South Africa, who attended the counter-mine demonstration.
Mechem, a privatized South African company that used to be part of Armscor, recently landed $3.5 million in contracts to de-mine roads and rural areas in neighboring Mozambique where some 6,000 people - mainly civilians - have been killed or maimed in land mine explosions since 1980.
Land mines are hindering the return of refugees, the restoration and building of roads, and the rehabilitation of the mighty Cahora Bassa hydroelectric plant on Mozambique's Zambezi River.
The new contracts follow a successful operation two years ago in which the company removed around 16,000 mines near electricity pylons connected to Cahora Bassa.
It is estimated by humanitarian agencies that some 100 million land mines are scattered over more than 60 countries. In Africa alone, the world's most heavily mined continent, there are between 18 million and 30 million land mines.
DURING the decades of apartheid, South Africa was responsible for laying hundreds of thousands of mines in support of anti-communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique.
Angola, the most heavily mined country in Africa, is on par with Afghanistan and Iraq with an estimated 9 million unexploded mines and a worldwide record of 20,000 people - mainly civilians - who have lost limbs.
Mines are still being laid in large numbers in Angola, which reverted to civil war after its first democratic elections in 1992.
During the 17 years of the UN arms embargo against South Africa, which was lifted in May, the country developed a flourishing armaments industry that is now the country's largest source of foreign revenue in the manufacturing sector.
President Nelson Mandela has faced criticism over South Africa's former role in arming countries like Iraq and Rwanda and over plans to further develop the armaments export industry.
Kasrils said he is sensitive to moral arguments against the production of weapons. But he is also convinced that an important role exists for an accountable armaments industry that can provide jobs and supply a legitimate and democratic defense force.
He added that South Africa has sold only 3,900 mines on the commercial market, and the supply of mines to the rebel movements in Angola and Mozambique had long since ceased.
In recent years, Armscor has developed advanced counter-mining techniques and has become a world leader in mine-protected armored vehicles.
``South Africa has developed one of the world's most sophisticated counter-mine capabilities ... particularly regarding the level of mine detection, mine clearing, and mine-field breaching,'' Kasrils said.
The Armscor exhibition included demonstrations of the destructive capacities of mines, mine-protected vehicles, and mine detection methods involving trained sniffer dogs.
Kasrils said that the lifting of the UN arms embargo meant that many international programs - including UN peacekeeping operations, UN food and health programs, and the ICRC - could now benefit from South Africa's expertise in this field.
``It might be too early to talk about turning swords into ploughshares, but at least we can contribute to making ploughing in the rural areas safe again,'' he said.