SOUTH AFRICA Through the Back Door

September 25, 2007

The noise of Western doors slam- ming in South Africa's face has drawn attention away from Latin America, where several doors have remained quietly ajar. While the re- gion's governments have not gener- ally welcomed the apartheid regime as an official ally-most do not even host a South African mission-this has not stopped many from establish- ing economic and military ties. The dictatorships of Chile and Paraguay
have long been friendly with South
Africa, but in recent years a number
of civilian regimes have responded
favorably to Pretoria's long and atten-
tive cultivation, including several
that have publicly condemned apart-
The most spectacular triumphs for
the white regime are the pending de-
livery by Brazil of 200 combat ve-
hicles, worth $16 million, and the
reported purchase from Argentina of
Mirage-3 fighter aircraft. The former
is especially significant as Brazil, the
Third World's largest arms exporter,
maintains an official policy of ex-
cluding South Africa from its arms
In 1980 Latin American nations'
total exports to South Africa
amounted to $94.4 million; in 1987
this had risen to $419 million, not
including suspected covert military
sales. On August 9, 1985, Jose Sar-
ney, the president of Brazil, issued a
decree prohibiting export of arms,
crude oil and petroleum derivatives to
South Africa. A diplomatic row be-
tween the two governments followed.
Yet recently the conservative South
African newspaper, the Sunday
Times, boasted that last year South
African imports to Brazil rose from
$50 million to $60.5 million while
exports rose from $40 millin to $80.9
million in the same period.
Ironically, these increases came
during a period when military re-
gimes were giving way to civilian
governments who were shoring up
their postures of nonalignment. Ar-
gentina, for instance, had sales of $71
million to South Africa in the first 11
months of 1985. In 1980, under mili-
tary rule, Argentina's exports to
South Africa totaled only $8.7 mil-
South African sales to the region, at $321 million in 1987, showed an
increase from $210 million in 1980,
suggesting that the white government
might be using Latin American trad-
ing partners to obtain not just the
foodstuffs and timber it has always
bought, but manufactured items its
major Western trading partners are no
longer willing to supply.
Political and Economic Factors
Ecuador, Colombia and Peru
signed their first-ever trade agree-
ments with South Africa in 1985-but
they are exceptions. Other Latin na-
tions-Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uru-
guay and Paraguay--have trade agree-
ments with Pretoria dating back to the
mid-1960s, when it was forced out of
the Commonwealth of Nations.
Spurred on by Latin America's geo-
graphic proximity and the political
affinity of its right-wing militaries,
the white minority regime has been
methodically preparing for the cur-
rent boom.
Hemmed in by embargos, South
Africa has used investment, loans and
grants to the region's governments as
a way of surmounting the loss of
some Western trade. For Latin
American governments who see
themselves as victims of similar
international attempts to isolate
them-such as Chile, Paraguay and
Guatemala--South Africa is a natural
and sympathetic trading partner.
Over the years Pretoria has given
wide-ranging assistance, funding and
encouragement to major South Afri-
can corporations to invest in Latin
America. The mining giant Anglo
American has led the way with its
investment in Brazilian companies,
especially in the mining sector where
it has sunk $84 million into the Cara-
jas iron ore reserves. Anglo Ameri-
can also bought into mining opera-
tions in Mexico in the 1970s and
more recently in Peru. It built a cop-
per processing plant in Chile. Shaft
Sinkers, an Anglo subsidiary, has
been active in Bolivian mining, and
Foreign Minister Pik Botha: shoring up Latin military ties
Jane Hunter is editor and publisher
of Israeli Foreign Affairs, a monthly
report on Israel's activities outside
the Middle East.
4South African companies have been
involved in Venezuelan mining and
In the last 10 years South African
investment in Latin America has to-
taled over $500 million. According
to a 1985 report, South African pri-
vate capital was the second-largest
source of foreign private investment
in Chile, totaling $80 million in 1984
alone. At the start of the decade, part
of the South African fish processing
industry moved its capital and plant
to Chile from Namibia-the former
colony of South West Africa, which
South Africa continues to occupy il-
legally, and where fishing grounds
had been exhausted.
A particular benefit Latin govern-
ments derive from trading with Preto-
ria is the latter's easy lending poli-
cies, initiated in 1966. Between 1982
and the present, Chile, Paraguay,
Guatemala and El Salvador borrowed
over $190 million. These South Afri-
can loans are, according to a recent
report in the Toronto Globe and Mail,
"mainly government-to-government
loans, at half the interest rate preva-
lent at most international banks and
with no strings attached."
Flouting the Embargo
It is a major step, of course, from
economic cooperation with South
Africa to providing weapons to the
apartheid regime, which is strictly
forbidden by the United Nations Se-
curity Council Mandatory Arms Em-
bargo of 1977. Yet it is a step which
certainly has been taken by Chile and
Paraguay, and apparently by Brazil
and Argentina. Furthermore, Latin
American military establishments
and arms industries have become in-
creasingly attracted to South Africa
not only as a buyer, but as an adviser
in counterinsurgency.
This spring diplomats confirmed
to the London daily The Independent
that the wooden-crated Mirage-3
fighter aircraft being unloaded at
South African ports were from Ar-
gentina. South Africa plans to update
the Mirages with Israeli technology,
rename them Cheetah, and put them
into service as replacements for the
aircraft it has been losing in recent
fighting in Angola. When Argentina
JUL, //".UGUS 1 98
broke diplomatic relations with South
Africa in 1986 it cited South Africa's
"repeated acts of aggression against
neighboring nations and the illegiti-
mate occupation of Namibia." In a
statement denying the sale of Mi-
rages, Buenos Aires reiterated its
opposition to the apartheid state. It is
doubtful, however, whether a major
item like combat aircraft could be
sold without government approval.
There might also be validity to the
June report in The Independent that
in late 1986 the Argentine defense
ministry struck an agreement with the
foreign ministry, allowing under the
counter shipment of arms exports
through third countries or fronts.
In the past the NATO govern-
ments, France and Israel have freely
violated the UN embargo. But in re-
cent years increasing pressure from
anti-apartheid activists has inhibited
North American and European sales,
even of so-called dual use items. And
for years South Africa has tried in
vain to obtain fighter aircraft. The
Cheetah and additional Mirage 3's for
upgrading into Cheetahs is certainly
the next best thing.
In January 1986 the Argentine
government vehemently denied its
complicity in another arms deal: the
secret rerouting of five loads of
French weapons carried by a Danish
ship from Bordeaux to Durban, South
Africa. Navy officials in Denmark
said that the shipping documents
named Argentina as the buyer.
Argentine analysts noted the pos-
sibility that retired navy officers
could have provided the forged docu-
ments needed for the operation. It is
possible these officers felt indebted
to South Africa, which had reportedly
provided military training when the
Carter Administration cut off aid to
Argentina. Pretoria assisted in at
least one arms shipment to Argentina
during the Malvinas/Falklands war.
Birds of a Feather
But nowhere is South Africa more
welcomed in Latin America than in
Chile and Paraguay. Although pre-
cise details about the wares involved
are hard to come by, it is known that
Chile has purchased Crotale surface-
to-air missiles from South Africa
(produced under French license and
called Cactus) and has bought riot-
control and security equipment from
Companhia de Explosivos Valparaiba
and other South African joint ven-
tures in Brazil. There also have been
persistent reports of intelligence ties
and involvement of Chilean person-
nel in Namibia.
Moreover, all signs indicate that
the relationship between the two
countries is growing. In October
1983 Chile's state-owned naval docks
and yards company, ASMAR, en-
tered a joint venture with South Af-
rica's Sandock Austral to build a
shipyard in Punta Arenas. South Af-
rica is planning to build submarines
at its own yards in cooperation with
Chile and there is speculation that Is-
rael, which helped the white regime
acquire plans from a West German
company, is a third partner in this
enterprise. Israel is performing the
same overhaul on Chilean Mirages
that resulted in the South African
Cheetah. There may be other tripar-
tite projects as well: Recently a Dan-
ish ship under lease to an Israeli arms
hauling firm took on cargo in Chile
and delivered it to Durban.
In the past year the white regime
has assigned two new military at-
tach6s to join the one already sta-
tioned at its embassy in Santiago. In
September 1987 Gen. Augusto Pino-
chet met with South African Air
Force Commander-in-Chief Lt. Gen.
Denis John Earp in Santiago. Ac-
cording to Gen. Fernando Matthei,
commander of Chile's Air Force, the
two discussed "how to cope with the
embargo problems we are facing and
how to enhance mutual cooperation
in every aspect."
In March of this year, Vice Adm.
Glen Syndercombe, chief of the
South African Navy, visited his coun-
try's "replenishment" ship in the
port city of Valparaiso. In the same
month South African Foreign Minis-
ter Botha visited Chile, suddenly and
"privately." There were reports that
the visit was connected to Chile's
annual arms fair and international air
exhibition, FIDA 88, at which South
Africa was--as it has been in the
past--a major exhibitor.
While there is a certain reserve in
the public conduct of relations be-
I "'tween Pretoria and the Pinochet re-
gime, the tenor of Paraguayan-South
African relations is one of unabashed
celebration. A state visit by President
Alfredo Stroessner and a party of 70
in 1974 was the first visit by a non-
African head of state to South Africa
since the Portuguese president's visit
in 1956, and the second since King
George VI brought the British royal
family there in 1947. South African
Prime Minister John Vorster returned
the favor with a state visit to Para-
guay the following year.
This spring Paraguayan Foreign
Minister Carlos Augusto Saldivar
visited South Africa and received the
Order of Good Hope from his
counterpart Pik Botha; Saldivar be-
stowed the Paraguayan National Or-
der of Merit, Class Grand Crux Ex-
traordinaire upon Botha. The busi-
ness at hand was to update a 1978
economic agreement and to sign ac-
cords doing away with visas and es-
tablishing air links.
Although Paraguay does not pro-
duce arms and is not known to have
made major weapons purchases from
South Africa's growing arms export
industry, on at least one occasion in
June 1978 it served as an entrep6t for
a West German shipment of missile
launchers and artillery to South Af-
rica. The weapons were transshipped
to Durban through Paraguay's leased
free port in Brazil.
An Ally in Counterinsurgency
During this same period of grow-
ing trade and military ties, South Af-
rica's diplomatic representation in
Latin America has shrunk. Its em-
bassy in El Salvador, which also rep-
resented South Africa in Colombia,
was closed in 1979 when the ambas-
sador was killed. Almost immedi-
ately after President Alan Garcia took
office in 1985, Peru closed its Cape
Town consulate as well as the South
African consulate in Lima. Accord-
ing to an officer at the South African
Embassy in Washington, Pretoria
now has full-fledged missions only in
Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile,
with honorary consuls in Colombia
and Guatemala.
In 1986 the Guatemalan Congress
voted to break diplomatic relations
with South Africa, following a Euro-
pean tour by the body's foreign rela-
tions commission. However, the
move was opposed by the military
and subsequently blocked by Presi-
dent Vinicio Cerezo, who stressed
Guatemala's need to surmount its
own international isolation.
The Guatemalan military's stance
was undoubtedly prompted by its de-
sire to maintain ties with its South
African counterpart. In the early
1980s the South Africans offered
counterinsurgency troops to Guate-
mala. These, say several sources,
were refused, although South African
advisers are reported to be helping
with the "development poles" rural
pacification program. According to
AfricAsia, in early 1983 Guatemalan
officers visited South Africa and
Namibia to study counterinsurgency
South Africa was also an eager
participant in the Reagan Administra-
tion's covert resupply of the contras.
It not only helped arm the contras but
provided aircraft and personnel to
deliver weapons. As late as March
1987 the San Antonio Light of the
Knight-Ridder chain reported that
South Africa had contra support per-
sonnel stationed at Aguacate and
Swan Island, both CIA bases in Hon-
While these counterrevolutionary
activities expand the international
scope of the increasingly isolated
white regime, South Africa has not
given up hope of more conventional
relationships. In 1984 a Center for
Latin American Studies was opened
at the University of South Africa.
"The center," said then Deputy
Foreign Minister Louis Nel, "would
play an important role in forging
closer links between South Africans
and South Americans."
Pretoria's extensive collaboration
with Chile and Paraguay cannot be a
very satisfying substitute for what
were once grand plans to establish a
South Atlantic alliance styled after
NATO.* Under U.S. tutelage, the
South Atlantic Treaty Organization
(SATO) would have paired South
Africa with the right-wing regimes of
* See Report on the Americas, Vol. 15,
No. 3, "South Atlantic Triangle."
Latin trade at work in Namibia
the Southern Cone. Argentina, Chile,
Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Para-
guay were all candidates for SATO
membership. But the idea withered,
especially in the aftermath of the
Malvinas-Falklands war.
In 1983 Argentina voiced strenu-
ous objections to the landing of 250
South Africans to work on a British
air base in the contested islands, de-
spite assurances by Pretoria (which
had professed neutrality during the
war) that the government had not
been involved in their hiring. The
following year South Africa's ambas-
sador to Argentina spoke of his gov-
ernment's continuing support of a
South Atlantic pact, but acknowl-
edged that "the idea seems to be a
divisive factor which makes the
countries that would have to partici-
pate uncomfortable." SATO's last
truncated version proposed to include
Chile, South Africa, Britain and the
Latin America has found in South
Africa a convenient and cheap source
of credit, as well as a willing cus-
tomer for its armaments. Those Latin
leaders who may genuinely condemn
the white regime choose to look the
other way in less public matters of
commerce. And since there has been
little outcry in the region, Latin
America's involvement with South
Africa may well continue to grow.

Tags: South Africa, arms trade, Foreign Policy, apartheid

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.