A startling fact has emerged from the battlefields of Iraq, providing powerful evidence that the conduct of war has been radically transformed over the last 15 years. In the 1991 Gulf War, 1 in every 100 soldiers deployed by the US-led coalition were mercenaries hired by private military companies. Today in Iraq, more than 1 in 5 coalition soldiers are mercenaries. Since the mid-1990s, the private military sector has been the fastest growing industry in the world. With the US as its biggest client, the industry was worth $100-200 billion per year even before the invasion of Iraq.
There are currently 130,000 US soldiers, 9000 British, and 15,000 other coalition soldiers operating in Iraq. With estimates of more than 30,000 private ‘security experts,’ mercenaries now compose the second largest military force in the country. The vast oil resources and uncontainable resistance have made the country a magnet for mercenaries. War profiteers such as Bechtel and Halliburton hire private armies to protect their assets, paying mercenaries up to $1000 a day for special assignments quelling uprisings in Iraqi cities.
The number of South Africans in Iraq is estimated to range from 5000 to 10 000. According to a recent United Nations report, South Africa is among the top three suppliers of personnel for private military companies operating in Iraq next to the US and the UK. At least 10 South African based companies have been sending people to Iraq. Most of those recruited operate as drivers and bodyguards, protecting supply routes and valuable resources. Yet several hundred South Africans are alleged to have fought alongside the Americans and the British in Fallujah and other hotspots. Members of special police units, such as the South African Police Services’ Elite Task Force, who protect senior state officials like President Mbeki, have sought early retirement to join private military companies in Iraq.
The most heavily recruited South Africans are those with backgrounds in the elite apartheid-era special forces. Many members of Apartheid-era security groups such as the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the 32 Buffalo Battalion, the Parachute Brigade, Reaction Unit 9, the Reconnaissance Commandos, Koevoet, and Vlakplaas – many of whom received amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – are now in Iraq. This fact emerged last January when a bomb in Baghdad killed Francois Strydom and maimed Deon Gouws.
Strydom and Gouws were recruited by Erinys International to provide bodyguard services to a US general. In the 1980s, Strydom worked for Koevoet, a brutal wing of the South African military whose members were reportedly paid bounties for the bodies of SWAPO activists in Namibia. A former member of Vlakplaas, Gouws, admitted to the TRC that he petrol-bombed the homes of 40-60 anti-apartheid activists, assassinated KwaNdebele homeland Cabinet minister and ANC activist Piet Ntuli, firebombed the home of the late Fabian Ribiero, and murdered nine activists.
Gouws has recently changed his mind about mercenary activity and is now discouraging South Africans from going to Iraq. In a recent interview he is quoted as saying, “To go to Iraq is to sign a death warrantit is hellpeople do not want us thereno amount of money is worth it”. Thus far, 13 South Africans have been killed in Iraq.
Last April, Gray Branfield, working for a contractor called the Hart Group was killed in the eastern Iraqi city of Kut. After spending the 1970s in an elite Rhodesian paramilitary unit, Branfield was recruited by the SA Defence Force in the 1980s. Part of ‘Project Barnacle,’ he helped track down and assassinate top anti-apartheid leaders in Southern Africa – including Joe Gqabi, the ANC representative in Zimbabwe. During one covert operation in Zimbabwe, Branfield kidnapped a police officer, strapped explosives to his body, and took his family hostage in order to secure the release of a captured South African commando. He also helped plan an attack on an ANC safe house in Botswana in which 14 people, including a child, were killed in their sleep.
The brutal foot soldiers of the Apartheid era are much in demand. In fact, building on a long tradition of mercenary activity throughout Africa, South Africans pioneered the re-packaging of mercenary activity as ‘legitimate’ private business. In the late 1980s, Executive Outcomes (EO) was formed and drew heavily on members of the 32 Buffalo Battalion and operatives of the notorious Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB). During the 1990s, EO conducted ‘counter-insurgency’ operations throughout Africa in exchange for mining and oil concessions. In the late 1990s, EO morphed into Sandline International, which later shut down and re-emerged as Aegis Defense Systems. Last June, Aegis was awarded a massive $300 million contract by the US authorities to protect the ‘Green Zone’ in downtown Baghdad and to coordinate the activities of all private security companies operating in Iraq.
South African military companies play a prominent role in Iraq. Meteoric Tactical Solutions has about a R3.1 million contract with the British government to provide bodyguards and drivers for senior officials in Iraq. The latter company, together with Grand Lake Trading, has registered with South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee to operate in Iraq. Erinys International, founded by apartheid-era military intelligence officer Sean Cleary, has a nearly $80 million contract to train Iraqi soldiers and protect oil installations. With the support of close business associates of the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, Erinys has employed South African military specialists to train hundreds of members of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Speculation in Iraq suggests that Erinys is helping Chalabi build a personal army.
Other South Africans with odious pasts involved in Iraq include Albertus van Schalkwyk also known as ‘Sailor’ who runs a company called Sailor Security Services. He was a Koevoet member, and was deported from New Zealand on drug smuggling charges. Brian Boucher, fingered as a police spy on the Wits and Natal university campuses in the eighties, and later in charge of the Point Road Police Station formed a company called Shelfco Investments. It is alleged that he has recruited many South Africans from the Durban area to go to Iraq.
In addition to South Africans, the military companies operating in Iraq have recruited security personnel associated with the former Chilean dictator, Pinochet, Yugoslavian war criminal, Milosevic, as well as security personnel from Israel and Central America.
The US and the UK have unapologetically promoted the privatisation of repression and the legitimization of mercenary activity. The intentions of the Equatorial Guinea coup plotters were well known to Jack Straw, Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Yet the US and UK did nothing to stop them. In 1998, when the US based military firm, DynCorp, was found to be involved in the trafficking of sex-slaves in Bosnia, 13 employees were withdrawn but no one was charged. In Columbia, DynCorp is contracted by the US government to spray toxic herbicide over fields, without regard to the devastating consequences on the villagers and farmers below. DynCorp is also actively recruiting South Africans. In Iraq, private military firms such as CACI and Titan were supposed to be providing staff support and translation in Abu Ghraib prison. Instead, they’ve been implicated in the torture, rape, and execution of prisoners. But no one has been charged with a crime. Erinys’s past activities are as unsavoury as DynCorp’s. In August 2003, the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining, a Ghanaian organization, released a report detailing human rights abuses perpetrated by Erinys personnel at an Ashanti gold mine. The report details eyewitness accounts of the torture and killings of local small-scale miners between 1994 and 2002.
Unlike its British and American counterparts, the South African government insists on its opposition to foreign military activity for private monetary gain. The Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act is supposed to regulate the ability of South African companies and individuals to participate in armed conflicts abroad. However, the loopholes and insignificant penalties imposed by the Act make it extremely ineffective. In addition, for a long time there seemed to be no political will to properly enforce the law. Only two people have been convicted under the terms of the Act, both for mercenary activity in the Cote d’Ivoire. Carl Alberts was fined $3000 and Richard Rouget a mere $1500. These fines are trivial for mercenaries raking in huge amounts of money. South African citizens require much clearer information about these dogs of war instead of the bland and banal exchange between Taljaard from the Democratic Alliance and the Minister of Foreign Affairs: MS R TALJAARD (DA) TO ASK THE MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS:(1) Whether the Government has had any contact with either the Swiss or British governments in respect of South African private military companies, specifically two companies (names furnished – Meteoric Tactical Solutions and Erinys International), for protecting facilities and officials of the two governments concerned without having obtained approval for such contracts from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC); if not, why not; if so, what are the relevant details; (2) Whether the Government specifically communicated the lack of compliance with the provisions of the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, 1998 (Act No 15 of 1998), by these firms in contracting with the two governments concerned; if not, why not; if so, when; (3) Whether she will make a statement on the matter? N780E REPLY:(1) Yes. The Swiss Ambassador in Pretoria approached the Department of Foreign Affairs on 2 June 2004 with regard to the South African company that provides, amongst others, security services to foreign personnel based in Iraq, including Swiss Embassy personnel in Baghdad. The British Government has not approached the Department of Foreign Affairs. (2) The Department of Foreign Affairs referred the matter of MTS to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) for consideration in terms of the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act (RFMAA). (3) No. This might change, however, since President Thabo Mbeki declared in his recent State of the Nation address before Parliament, “In the coming year, we shallreview the Foreign Military Assistance Act in order to discourage, for their own good and the good of the country, those who seek to profit from conflict and human suffering such as in Iraq.”
A good place to begin tightening up the Act would be to return to the draft version of the Act, which stated that any person found guilty would be liable to “a fine not exceeding one million rand [roughly $150,000] or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years, or to both such fine or imprisonment.” The final version, on the other hand, merely stated that those guilty would be liable to “a fine or to imprisonment or to both such fine and imprisonment.” Our government also needs to tighten loopholes in the Act; refuse the sanctioning of the contracts of Private Military Forces and define clearly what military assistance means. Some companies, for instance, register as de-mining companies to bypass the Act. There is also the danger of subverting parliamentary oversight by allowing the Foreign Ministry to sanction contracts.
Above all, our government must realize, in the words of Michael Schmidt, that what “the South African authorities are up against is not merely a few military adventurers, but the 21st-century equivalent of the troops employed by the Dutch East India Company: private armies of very wealthy companies with global reach”. It is imperative that our government stems the tide of those seeking a quick fortune on other’s misery. The prestigious Lancet magazine estimated that at least 100 000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the invasion of Iraq. How many South Africans contributed to these deaths? As Gouws discovered, it is not the second Kimberly diamond rush many have been led to believe. Most flights from Johannesburg International to Dubai these days carry at least a few mercenaries en route to Baghdad. Some Iraqis confirm that Afrikaans is heard very frequently on the streets of Baghdad. Over the past ten years the mention of the name South Africa filled many with pride- a symbol of the ability of a people to overcome oppression through resistance and human solidarity across national boundaries. In the streets of Baghdad, this legacy is fast being squandered.
-Andy Clarno and Salim Vally are members of the Anti-War Coalition (JHB). The 19th of March, the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, has been declared a day of action by global peace and social justice organizations. In Johannesburg, the focus of demonstrations will be on South African mercenaries in Iraq.