Mbeki’s quest to give Zimbabwe arms shipment

 In an apparent revolt against a weakened president senior Cabinet ministers and government officials worked to prevent the Chinese arms ship from offloading its cargo, even as Thabo Mbeki insisted that the mortar bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles be allowed to reach Robert Mugabe's military, writes Nic Dawes in The Mail and Guardian, Johannesburg.

 Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, South African Revenue Service Commissioner Pravin Gordhan, director general in the Department of Transport Mpumi Mpofu and officials of the South African Police Service were among the key players in a plan to delay the docking of the ship. They hoped to seize the six containers of weapons on the pretext of customs and shipping technicalities, the Mail & Guardian has learned. The goal appears to have been to ensure the cargo could not be transported to Zimbabwe.

This strategy flew directly in the face of instructions from Mbeki to the ministry of defence and the national conventional arms control committee that the arms transfer should be permitted, according to government officials who were close to the process. “He gave a direct order that they have to let it through,” one close observer told the M&G. The seizure ultimately did not take place, because the ship failed to dock to avoid a court order to attach the weapons against debts owed by the Zimbabwean government. But the delays created by Sars and the transport department opened a window for court action, civil society protest and a declaration by dock workers that they would not unload the containers.

No one involved in the plan was prepared to speak on the record, all citing the extreme political sensitivity surrounding such a direct challenge to Mbeki’s authority. But the M&G has confirmed the details with two independent sources who witnessed the unfolding of the plan and with two others who were aware of it as a result of their proximity to the events.

According to these sources news of the shipment began to break on Tuesday April 15, the day after the An Yue Jiang arrived just off Durban. On April 16 Mbeki was in New York addressing the United Nations on improving cooperation between the African Union and the world body. The Cabinet met in his absence. “Trevor Manuel was determined to discuss it with his Cabinet colleagues,” said one official. The finance minister declared that he would “put his head on a block” over the issue. But the ship was not discussed during the formal proceedings of the Cabinet, according to sources who were present, despite the urgency of the issue, mushrooming media coverage throughout the day and the fact that several ministers had known about it for two days.

It is not clear if Manuel raised the shipment with colleagues such as transport minister Jeff Radebe on the sidelines of the Cabinet meeting. But by the end of that day a team of customs officials had already been assembled to go over the vessel and its cargo with a fine-toothed comb. Meanwhile in New York Mbeki told journalists that South Africa would not interfere in a legitimate transaction between Zimbabwe and China. There was initially confusion over whether the vessel would be granted permission to dock.

On April 15 the National Ports Authority said the ship would have to go through a complex clearance procedure, but 24 hours later NPA parent company, Transnet, said there was effectively nothing they could do to stop the ship from tying up. But that situation changed when the department of transport weighed in, with Mpofu sending a letter to the ship’s captain making it clear that permission to dock had been revoked and that he would have to reapply for clearance.

 By April 17 officials from Sars’ Pretoria headquarters arrived in Durban to help coordinate the effort. While the bureaucrats attempted to stall the docking of the An Yue Jiang, Sars officials worked with the police on a plan to secure the containers on landing. They were then to be escorted to a secure military site, where they would be held. Mbekiʼs insistence on letting the weapons through is seen by many who were formerly among his closest allies in government and the ANC as “bizarre” and “embarrassing”. “It was a real revolt,” said one. “Every-one is asking what has happened to him. It is very hard to explain.” Manuel’s spokesperson, Thoraya Pandy, declined to comment.

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