The ship of Shame

REPORTS of the systematic repression of opposition supporters and activists in the three weeks since Zimbabwe's election last month come from such a wide variety of sources that they must be true, writes Business Day, Johannesburg in an editorial.

There have also been numerous reports of desperate military and police generals in Zimbabwe urgently wanting to get their hands on the 77 tons of ammunition and mortar bombs on board the Chinese vessel An Yue Jiang.
Assuming President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu (PF) manage to manipulate the election results to force a rerun, the military and the police will need all the firepower they can get to quell any post-election popular uprising. Indeed, many commentators have warned of the potential for a Rwanda-type genocide.

Against this background it is incredible that the South African government was prepared to allow the transit of the An Yue Jiang weapons across South African soil. The speed with which a transit permit was issued, even before the cargo had been inspected or the ship had docked, beggars belief. The contention that because there is no arms embargo in force against Zimbabwe the transshipment could not be blocked is unacceptable in the light of the provisions of SA’s own Conventional Arms Control Act.

The act clearly instructs SA to “avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms” or “endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability”.

Transfers are not defined but trade in arms includes “conveyance” of weapons. Hence there are substantial legal grounds for refusing to allow the weapons to cross South African soil.

Again the government is guilty, at best, of a weak-kneed stance on Zimbabwe, and at worst, actively supporting Mugabe and his thugs’ diabolical behaviour.

It is here that we should pay homage to a number of South Africans who said no, starting with Noseweek editor Martin Welz, who broke the story in his maverick publication. Then there is the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union, which refused to unload the boat, and the Southern African Litigation Centre (including Bishop Rubin Phillip, Paddy Kearney and the lawyers who acted for them — JP Purshotam, Malcolm Wallis, Angus Stewart and Max du Plessis), which gained a high court order late on Friday, preventing the transport of the weapons across South African soil.

What a great pity the ship made off before the cargo could be seized. It is now apparently heading for Angola, from where the Zimbabwean generals will hope to fly the deadly cargo to Harare. Let us hope that Angola will follow the lead of Mozambique and Tanzania, which both reportedly refused to dock the ship and allow transshipment of the cargo.

It is also to be hoped that this signals the end to SA’s limp-wristed approach to Zimbabwe, and that if the ship re-enters SA’s territorial waters it will be arrested. SA must also join other right-minded African countries and put pressure on Angola not to allow the arms to reach Zimbabwe. After all, it does not require an overactive imagination to understand just why Mugabe’s generals want this arms consignment so badly.

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