South Africa’s military exports to Turkey “unfathomable” – analyst

South African military hardware sold to Turkey will likely end up being deployed in Syria and Libya with devastating consequences, an analyst writing for the South African newspaper The Star said on Thursday.

Shannon Ebrahim, group foreign editor for Independent Media platform which publishes The Star, said it was “unfathomable” that South Africa had approved the export of military hardware to Turkey since its National Conventional Arms Control Act (NCACC) stipulates that South Africa may not sell military equipment and weapons to any country engaged in armed conflict.

“It would seem the sale of any type of military hardware to Turkey would go against the provisions of the NCACC Act, and it begs the question as to whether the NCACC is acting as a credible oversight mechanism to ensure compliance with the law,” Ebrahim said.

The NCACC issued a permit earlier this year to Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) to export military hardware to Turkey. Six Turkish military cargo planes delivered the hardware from South Africa to Turkey this week. 

Ebrahim said this raised serious questions over transparency and why South Africa is making such transactions when Turkey is involved in military operations in both Syria and Libya. Turkey has launched four major military operations in Syria with allied Syrian Islamist militias since 2016. In Libya, Ankara backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord against the eastern-based Libyan National Army.

Germany has banned exports of weapons to Turkey which could be used in the conflict in Syria – yet RDM is jointly owned by the German company Rheinmetall Waffe Munition and Denel, noted Ebrahim.

Ruby Maree, the company’s head of public relations, has said their customers do not want them to disclose the nature of the military exports – so RDM has refused to answer questions over the type of military hardware exported to Turkey, Ebrahim said.

Ezra Jele, head of the secretariat of the NCACC, told Ebrahim that applications for exports are considered on a case-by-case basis and according to product categories, but has failed to respond to her questions on the nature of the military exports to Turkey. 

“There has been a seeming reluctance on the part of Jele to respond honestly and in a straightforward manner on this issue, which begs the question as to why,” Ebrahim said.

Ebrahim said that the Turkish Ambassador to South Africa Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen also refused to comment on the nature of the military exports to Turkey, and called them “a simple trade act”.

Turkey has claimed that military hardware from South Africa will be used in military exercises, and are for the country’s Machinery and Chemical Industry Institution. 

But Ebrahim said Turkish defence expert Levent Özgül had pointed out that this organisation processes explosives and ammunition for the Turkish Defence Ministry, and RDM specialises in the manufacture of large and medium-calibre ammunition, and claims to be a leader in the field of artillery, mortar and infantry systems.

Ebrahim said it was reasonable to assume the hardware would end up being used to devastating effect on the battlefields of Syria or Libya. 

“This is precisely why our national arms control legislation has the important caveat that we cannot sell military items to countries engaged in armed conflict,” she said.