“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

– George Stephanopolous
ABC News
January 1, 2005
Administration Clears Way for South African Arms Trade
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March 1998

By Wade Boese

In lifting sanctions on South Africa's primary weapons companies, the Clinton administration has cleared the way for U.S. arms sales to South Africa for the first time in 35 years. Removal of the prohibitions follows the adoption of export control programs by three firms after the recent settlement of a U.S. federal court case against them for export control violations and comes amidst a South African military modernization program.

The decision, announced in a joint statement between Vice President Al Gore and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki on February 27, ended the debarment of the three companies—Armscor (the procurement company for South Africa's military), Denel and Fuchs Electronics—from participating in U.S. arms deals. Transactions involving these companies will now be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

During the apartheid era, the United Nations maintained an arms embargo on South Africa, beginning with a voluntary embargo in 1963 and then a mandatory one in 1977. Although the United Nations lifted its embargo in 1994, the United States continued to forbid arms deals with the three firms because of a 1991 indictment charging the companies with violating the U.S. Arms Export Control Act by illegally acquiring U.S. arms for South Africa and smuggling weapons to Iraq in the 1980s through front companies.

The firms eventually pleaded no contest to the charges in February 1997 and accepted criminal fines totaling $12.5 million. The State Department opted to waive civil fines in lieu of a pledge by the three to pay an additional $6.25 million to strengthen South Africa's export control system by the year 2000.


Resolving the Issues

As a condition for ending their debarment, each company agreed to develop exportcontrol compliance programs to ensure that U.S. arms would be handled according to U.S. law and not be retransferred to unauthorized third parties. A team of U.S. government experts reviewed the compliance programs from February 20-26 and determined the programs were "satisfactory."

South Africa is currently considering a substantial military acquisition program, reportedly valued at more than $2 billion, that includes submarines, battle tanks, fighter aircraft, light utility and maritime helicopters, corvettes, and jet trainer aircraft. Foreign supplier proposals, including packages and offsets, are due in May.

Although it may be too late for U.S. arms firms to participate, the policy change could benefit Sweden. The State Department denied a Swedish request earlier this year to market its JAS-39 Gripen fighter aircraft, which contains a significant amount of U.S. components, to South Africa. With the removal of U.S. restrictions, Swedish officials will likely press the United States to allow the Gripen to compete for the sale.

Early last year, Washington and Pretoria openly disputed a South African decision to upgrade Syria's battle tanks with more sophisticated sighting systems. The deal drew strong U.S. criticism and never went forward. South African officials claimed they never received an official request from Syria and denounced U.S. interference in South Africa's affairs. As recently as November 1997, South African Defense Minister Joe Modise insisted that Pretoria "will most certainly agree to all [weapons] requests by Syria and by other Arab states."