05/02/2018 06:22 SAST | Updated 05/02/2018 12:23 SAST

Dirty Apartheid Lies: SA's Murderous Arms Machine And The Bank That Cashed In (And Out)

Like a spy novel, dirty deals occurred in the back rooms of the very embassies that stood against apartheid, said a witness.

'Joining The Dots' Report, Open Secrets, 2018

Startling revelations and powerful evidence of grand corruption implicating politicians from PW Botha to Jacob Zuma, global banks and corporations was presented at The People's Tribunal on Saturday and Sunday.

Overseen by an esteemed panel including former Constitutional Court Justice Zac Yacoob, the Tribunal has been set up by civil society groups to hear evidence on corruption, capture and economic crime over the last 40 years in South Africa.

The Tribunal has, thus far, heard evidence of covert networks of politicians, state companies and corporations involved in the systemic violation of the United Nations' weapons embargo on South Africa during apartheid.

Standing as a witness, author of "Apartheid Guns and Money" Hennie van Vuuren emphasised the importance of bringing this evidence to light is in recognising the actors that contributed to the gross violation of human rights during apartheid. Beyond the pursuit of justice, he said, the goal is also to recognise how these crimes are connected.

Apartheid's murderous military machine

At the heart of the arms machine, he said, was South African state-owned arms company Armscor which bought (and sold) weapons from abroad in contravention of a compulsory U.N. embargo on trading arms with the country.

Almost all military expenditure, which amounted to approximately 28% of the country's budget at the time or half a trillion rand in today's value, passed through the company, he said.

But to oil this military machine -- which was created in response to the "appetite for the apartheid government's involvement in conflict locally and on the continent" -- the company needed to circumvent the compulsory global sanctions. In come the French.

Die Groot Krokodil's deathly French Kiss

Realising weapons couldn't be procured from Pretoria, then-Prime Minister PW Botha ('Die Groot Krokodil') took business abroad. For some a city of love, South Africa's government made Paris, France, its city of bloodlust.

The South African embassy in Paris housed what was called the tegniese raad (technical council) from which Armscor would strike it's deals, which van Vuuren said was not known until they began researching years ago.

"This was there base... from which they'd go around Europe doing deals, in some instances liaising with partners in Africa (like Zaire)... and perhaps even China," he said.

Even leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement who tried to expose these links had no idea what was happening in Paris.

Documentary evidence, van Vuuren said, showed how French intelligence would have regular meetings with Armscor officials on a regular basis in the 1970s and 1980s. That heads of intelligence from France and South Africa were meeting suggests politicians in the upper echelons of France's government were well aware of sanctions being broken, he said.

Central to this relationship, he added, was French arms company Thompson CSF -- today Thales -- which documentary evidence showed met with PW Botha's minister of defence to co-develop sophisticated missile technology for use in apartheid South Africa's warmongering locally and abroad.

Demonstrating just how far into the present dodgy relations continued, Van Vuuren highlighted that the same company, Thales, is implicated in paying bribes to now President Jacob Zuma through his financial adviser (and now convicted fraudster) Schabir Shaik.

"These are the 783 counts of corruption, fraud and money laundering [Zuma] currently faces today," he said.

The two faces of the international community

The story of the apartheid government's circumvention of sanctions, however, was more than just a French love affair with the Broederbond.

More than 50 countries were involved in sanctions-busting in one way or another, he said. Most notably, every single country on the United Nation's Security Council -- those very nations tasked with policing the sanctions that were imposed -- were all involved to some extent, he said.

Others included many countries across Europe and, notably, Israel. Armscor, he said, created offices in Tel Aviv which was "active in ensuring the relationship with Israel in the procurement and co-development of weapons could take place with a large contingent of officials based there".

Many of these nations, he said, voiced public opposition to apartheid while secretly adding fuel to the fire.

Open Secrets

How to bankroll a bloody regime

Another key player, this time a bank, was Kredietbank in Belgium and its Luxembourg subsidiary.

Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, an academic and former director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits, reiterated the bank's role in aiding Armscor: firstly, through creating shell companies to help erase the trail of money and, secondly, in creating access to bank accounts.

Through accounts managed by the bank, money to purchase arms could be transferred from Pretoria to the ultimate recipients without raising any alarms. More simply, by setting up fake companies and chanelling money through them, the apartheid regime was able to oil its military machine without let or hindrance.

"Countries such as Belgium, France, Portugal and others were able to utilise private entities to enter into engagements with banks that very elegantly set up these shelf companies," she said.

"There'd be hundreds of these across the world where a corporate actor in the Global North would take funds, channel them through shelf companies and money would land up in SA which then went to Armscor (and vice versa)".

"These are not just AK47s -- an image incalcated in films -- but parts of machine guns, helipcopters, parts used to maintain and facilitate this crime against humanity," she said.

Like a spy novel, though, they occurred in the back rooms of the very embassies that stood against apartheid, she said.

Why does this matter today?

In detailing the secret flow of money for arms, Meyersfeld said the purpose is to shine a light on the fact that there remains an urgent need to create a global body to regulate the conduct of banks.

"The reality is there is no international entity that can hold banks to account for their compliance or their non-compliance with standards around international banking, and more importantly for the participation in criminal activity," she said.

Despite the "accountability vacuum," one option she said was to use the OECD National Contact Point (NCP) which hears complaints from individuals who claim corporations are guilty of human rights violations. OECD countries adhering to guidelines on multinational corporations are required to setup NCPs which provide a mediation and conciliation platform for resolving issues involving those companies, she said.

While no silver bullet, this would be one currently available option for "some semblance of accountability" in relation to Kredietbank, she said. Reputation damage, she said, could ultimately result in operations closing or at the least spark efforts at reparations in the absence of a global entity with real teeth.

Insisting on the necessity of global institutions or mechanisms to ensure justice, Meyersfeld said corporations had gotten off scot-free for too long.

"They may not hold the gun to the mineworker at the mine, but they are the ones providing the funds to do this," she said.

When they do, she added, corporate social responsibility projects in response are not enough:

"Corporates can be the agent of harm and the agent of good. But you can't bomb an economy, then build a school".