South African dock workers refuse to unload Chinese arms bound for Zimbabwe

South African dock workers are refusing to unload a Chinese cargo ship carrying 77 tons of small arms destined for Zimbabwe. The arms, including three million rounds of ammunition for AK-47s and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades, were ordered by the Zimbabwean military at the time of the March 29 election—which the UK and other Western powers have accused Robert Mugabe of trying to rig. The arms arrived at Durban April 16 aboard the Chinese-owned An Yue Jiang and must be taken by road to landlocked Zimbabwe, where the government is accused of arming rural militias before a possible run-off vote for the presidency. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has accused Mugabe’s Zanu-PF of preparing for a “war.”

South African Defense Secretary January Masilela said the shipment had been approved by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), which he chairs. “This is a normal transaction between two sovereign states and we don’t have to interfere,” he said. But opposition parties slammed the decision to grant the transit permit and the country’s main transport union said that its members would refuse to unload the cargo.

“We do not believe it will be in the interest of the Zimbabwean people in general if South Africa is seen to be a conduit of arms and ammunition into Zimbabwe at a time when the situation could be described as quite volatile,” said Randall Howard, a spokesman for the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU). “As far as we are concerned the containers will not be offloaded.”

Rafeek Shah, defense spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, the main South African opposition party, added: “The world’s astonishment at President Mbeki’s political defence of Robert Mugabe will likely turn into outright anger as we are now not only denying the existence of a crisis in Zimbabwe, but also actively facilitating the arming of an increasingly despotic and desperate regime.”

AfriForum, a regional civil alliance (identified by the London Times as a “business lobby group”), said it would organize protests along the shipment’s route. The South African Institute of Race Relations said that if the shipment goes ahead, “South Africa’s culpability in the Zimbabwe crisis would then be without question.”

Legal challenges have been brought to halt the transport of the arms through South Africa. Nicole Fritz, head of the Southern African Litigation Centre, told Times Online that under the 2002 National Convention on Arms Control, the permit should not have been granted. That law, she said, specifically prohibits the shipment of arms that will “contribute to internal repression.” She also asserted the shipment would violate regional arms-control initiatives such as the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement.

Zimbabwe in 2006 bought six fighter jets from China, adding to a fleet of six it bought the previous year in a deal said to be based on barter—with China obtaining mineral raw materials. The aircraft deal also reportedly included the purchase of 100 military vehicles from China. (London Times, April 18)

SATAWU is an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which has joined with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in demanding that the Zimbabwean presidential results be announced. (The Times, Johannesburg, April 19)

See our last posts on China, Zimbabwe and China in Africa.

  1. White House pressure on Zimbabwe arms shipments
    From AP, April 23:

    JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe’s regime got a taste of the international isolation critics say it deserves, with its neighbors blocking a shipment of Chinese arms to prevent them from being used against Robert Mugabe’s opponents. China said Tuesday the weapons might be returned home.

    Union, church and human rights leaders across southern Africa rallied against allowing the Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang to dock at ports in any of landlocked Zimbabwe’s neighbors, and they were bolstered by behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States.

    In the end, governments usually unwilling to criticize Mugabe barred the ship at a time when Zimbabwe’s government is being accused of cracking down on dissenters.

    On Tuesday, church leaders in Zimbabwe said people were being tortured, abducted and murdered in a campaign of retribution against opposition supporters following the March 29 election, and urged international intervention.

    In Washington, the State Department said it had urged countries in southern Africa — notably South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia — not to allow the ship to dock or unload. It also asked the Chinese government to recall the vessel and not to make further weapons shipments to Zimbabwe until the postelection crisis is resolved.

    It is rather painful to see the White House on the same side as South African trade unionists. So has COSATU-member SATAWU been co-opted by imperialism? Or is the White House right on this question, even if for wrong reasons (designs to return to Zimbabwe to the neo-colonialist order, “great game” with China for control of Africa)? Sound off, readers…