S Africa agrees arms spending spree

Britain expected to tender for business as minister reverses military decline

After three years of apocalyptic warnings that South Africa would soon be relying on leaking submarines and rusty planes to defend its borders, defence minister Joe Modise has persuaded President Nelson Mandela's government to embark on its first military spending spree.

Hard lobbying has produced a marked change of heart. In 1994 South Africa's purchase of four Corvettes - for which Britain's Yarrow shipyard was on a shortlist of two to build - was halted by the African National Congress on the grounds the money would be better spent on schools and clinics.

But the Cape Town parliament has now endorsed defence department proposals to purchase four Corvettes, four submarines and other armaments; a plan already approved by President Mandela's cabinet. Britain, Spain, Germany and France are expected to be among the countries to tender for the business.

Parliament's decision is regarded as a major victory for Mr Modise whose defence budget has been slashed by 60 per cent since 1989. "He has lobbied hard to counter the arguments put forward in 1994," said former Brigadier Bill Sass, deputy director for the Institute of Security Studies. "Arguments about schools and clinics would not wash now ... Most military analysts agree the South African defence force is in a bad condition. The navy's last warships were bought 25 years ago."

Mr Sass said military spending was essential if South Africa was to maintain its regional position. "One of the reasons we keep shying away from peacekeeping is that we don't have the necessary equipment, particularly aircraft."

Not all the Institute's staff are as enthusiastic. Dr Jakkie Cilliers, the director, has been arguing for months that with apartheid and the Cold War gone the South African National Defence Force should be fundamentally redefining itself. He recommends it focus on internal crime fighting and anti-illegal immigrant border patrol since there is no immediate or medium term military threat from its neighbours.

But defence chiefs warn a military force cannot be built up overnight and South Africa should always be ready for unforeseen aggression.

Anticipating parliamentary approval, the international defence companies are already in South Africa pitching for business. "Overseas salesmen are already buying drinks for South African navy officers," said Mr Sass.

The military contracts involve billions of rands and lucrative international counter trade deals. Mr Sass said Britain was expected to put together a package to provide Corvettes, fighter aircraft and four surplus Upholder class submarines, which were built by Vickers for the British government in the mid-1990s for pounds 600m but never went into operation.

South Africa's defence budget is 1.6 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. It reached an apartheid-era peak of 4.5 per cent of GDP in 1989. The defence department is pushing for the budget to be raised to around 2 per cent; the level for which it claims many other countries settle.

The SANDF, now composed of former guerrillas who fought apartheid and the soldiers who once defended it, is halving its personnel in line with Mr Modise's promise to create a leaner, cheaper, better equipped fighting force. While job cuts will bring savings which can be ploughed into new equipment, Mr Modise has yet to clinch his bitter battle with finance minister Trevor Manuel for a gradual guaranteed increase in defence spending. According to Dr Cilliers, the SANDF's new spending will have to be gradual and initially on credit.

Given the SANDF's disreputable past the rehabilitation of the forces has proved a tricky business. Deputy defence minister Ronnie Kasrils promised earlier this year that SANDF had transformed itself and was no longer the "same old ravenous wolf plundering state coffers at the expense of the poor and needy".

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