SA's military helicopters for Mugabe?

JOHANNESBURG - The South African National Defence Force is about to send a gift of helicopters and spares to the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), raising the spectre they will be used in a military-backed campaign to put President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party back in power in polls expected this year.

The Mail & Guardian has seen confidential minutes of a meeting held in Cape Town two months ago between defence chiefs of the two countries. Under the heading “disposal of Alouette III helicopters and spares”, the minutes noted that “the administrative processes in the (South African National Defence Force) have been finalised and the equipment will soon be handed over to the ZDF”.

The department of defence confirmed shortly before going to press that “all processes for the disposal have been completed and the airframes and spares are ready for dispatch to that country as a donation”.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections by the end of March, although they are expected to be delayed for months. Apprehension is building among civil society and in Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that the military will step in, as it did during the violent 2008 presidential run-off, to save Mugabe.

The aged but versatile Alouette III, operated by the military in both countries since the 1960s, would be a force multiplier for the ZDF, providing fast access to rural areas.

Zimbabwe is under European and United States weapons sanctions, which have hampered the efforts of its air force to keep its handful of Alouette III and Agusta-Bell light utility helicopters in the air.

The ZDF notoriously stepped in to help to secure a win for Mugabe in the 2008 presidential run-off after the MDC beat Zanu PF in parliamentary elections. Operation waVhotera Papi (For whom did you vote?) reportedly involved a systematic and brutal crackdown on MDC supporters.

The ZDF chief, General Constantine Chiwenga, openly backs Zanu PF. He is alleged in media reports and by the MDC to be preparing a campaign to support Zanu PF’s election efforts and to have undermined the current unity government.

The minutes seen by the M&G appear to reflect the ZDF’s disdain for the power-sharing arrangement. In a “situation brief”, the Zimbabwean delegation was quoted as reporting: “The smooth governing of the country remained untenable owing to divergent political ideologies of the political parties in the inclusive government.”

The minutes are of the defence committee of the seventh session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe joint permanent commission on defence and security, a standing bilateral body.

Meeting at Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel between November 21 and 23, the committee was co-chaired by South African army chief Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo and his Zimbabwean counterpart, Lieutenant General Philip Valerio Sibanda.

Following allegations his troops were campaigning for Zanu PF in rural areas when elections were expected as far back as 2011, Sibanda was quoted in the state-owned The Herald newspaper as saying: “We have troops in various parts of the country doing training and … assisting various government departments like health and agriculture. It is unfortunate that we have some people who think that when they see army officers in a particular area … they are undertaking political activities.”

More recently, allegations surfaced of the military going on a vehicle-shopping spree in anticipation of the elections. The Zimbabwe Independent reported in November that the ZDF is buying about 1 000 Isuzu bakkies, complementing Zanu PF’s acquisition of 550 cars “to ensure its officials and foot soldiers reach all corners of the country to mobilise voters”.

These purchases underscore the importance of mobility if rural voters are to be corralled for Zanu PF through military inducement or intimidation.

It could not be established this week whether the Alouettes and spares have already been handed over, nor the quantities involved.

Exports of military hardware from South Africa have to be sanctioned by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), a cabinet body chaired by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe.

But Radebe’s spokesperson, Mthunzi Mhaga, deflected questions this week, saying the Alouettes and spares do not “fall within the NCACC’s parameters of control”.

Zimbabwe army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Alphious Makotore asked for all questions to be physically presented to a Colonel Overson Mugwisi at Zimbabwe.

MDC spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora said on Thursday his party was aware of a plot to beef up the military ahead of the elections, in support of Mugabe’s re-election bid.

“There is no need to escalate expenditure on the military when there are far more important exercises that the country is concerned with, such as securing the $21 million needed for the voter registration exercise,” he said.

“The military chiefs have already stated their objectives and who they will back for president. In our respectful view, the military is political and it is evident that they will neither respect the views of the people nor recognise an MDC victory in the coming election. That is why we are urging the Southern African Development Community and African Union to be thoroughly involved in Zimbabwe’s political processes.” — Mail and Guardian

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