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Group.png Armscor   WebsiteRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
HeadquartersPretoria, South Africa
Apartheid South Africa arms production an procurement company. Major node for SA and Western deep state activities.
Margaret Thatcher's "double standards" over the release of the Coventry Four

Armscor, the Armaments Corporation of South Africa, is the arms procurement agency of the South African Department of Defence. It was originally established in 1968 as an arms production company,[1] primarily as a response to the international sanctions by the United Nations against South Africa that began in 1963 and were formalised in 1967.[2]

In 1978, Armscor took over responsibility for the South African Nuclear weapons program.

In March 1984 four South African arms smugglers were arrested by HM Customs & Excise officers in Coventry and charged with conspiring to export arms from Britain to apartheid South Africa in contravention of the mandatory UN arms embargo.[3] Known as the Coventry Four, the Armscor employees were eventually granted bail of £400,000 and permitted to return to South Africa pending their trial.[4]

In August 1984, Foreign Minister Pik Botha refused to allow the Armscor Four, as he called them, to attend trial in Britain. Instead, the four men were presented at an Armscor press conference, from which foreign journalists were excluded, and claimed they had been subjected to seven weeks of degrading treatment at Winson Green prison in Birmingham. Armscor's Colonel Hendrik Botha, the Coventry Four's leader, spoke with pride that "our own contribution helped South Africa to develop many weapons systems." He said the forfeited £400,000 bail money was peanuts compared with the money they had saved the country in weapons purchases.[5]

In August 1989, British diplomat Patrick Haseldine was dismissed for publicly criticising Margaret Thatcher in the press of "double standards" over the release of the Coventry Four.[6]


Until the 1970s, South Africa's apartheid regime had placed a disproportionate emphasis on civilian law enforcement and the maintenance of internal security.[7] However, a Cuban intervention in Angola, and the escalation of the South African Border War convinced the government that it faced a serious external threat.[8] In 1978, the premiership was accepted by P W Botha, a former South African security chief, and defence expenditure spiraled upwards.[9] Armscor, then a relatively new entity, was charged with modernising the arsenal of the South African Defence Force (SADF). This was a difficult task, as a United Nations arms embargo on South Africa, promulgated in 1964, became mandatory in 1977.[10] Some of the SADF's preexisting hardware was trying to maintain, and any national defence establishment would encounter hurdles in keeping these systems operational without access to foreign technical support as well as new deliveries of parts and equipment.[11]

Armscor pursued both covert arms deals and black market purchases in an effort to acquire restricted defence technologies as rapidly as possible. The experience of the embargo encouraged South African efforts in diversifying suppliers while assuming indigenous production of some paraphernalia.[12] Availability of Western-style equipment and spares from Israel in particular helped compensate for the military effects of the UN embargo.[13] Armscor officials used aggressive covert techniques to acquire technology, bartering through other public sector enterprises, front companies, foreign agents, and even civil organisations.

South Africa had already maintained a small arms producing capacity during World War II, and unlike most African states it possessed exceptionally competent scientists and engineers adept at substituting local manufacture for imports. Generally Armscor proceeded by studying specimens of foreign equipment, sometimes through one of its third parties, then applying these skills to their improvement. By the 1990s it could boast of being "a world leader" in the field of upgrading obsolete weapons. Thus, Armscor's Olifant Mk1A tanks were rebuilt from elderly British Centurion tanks purchased from India and Jordan. Its Atlas Cheetah interceptors were based on Mirage III airframes and inspired by the IAI Kfir. A French armoured personnel carrier, the Berliet VXB, was the prototype of the six-wheeled Ratel IFV; Armscor also developed the Eland Mk7, a larger and more sophisticated variant of the Panhard AML armoured car.


Armscor oversaw a vast military, industrial and technological empire that consumed tens of billions of dollars. It was able to draw on both civilian and military resources, and had both legitimate and clandestine networks as a means of obtaining defence technology. Armscor's powers included the authority to integrate military and civilian industrial projects: this allowed for an ambitious dual-use production effort. According to a 1970 report, small arms and ammunition were being produced not only at defence ordnance facilities, but also at the South African mint and the African Explosive and Chemical Industries plant, which had previously confined its market to civil mining operations.[14]


South Africa began acquiring large quantities of NATO arms in 1960, after the Sharpeville Massacre prompted the African National Congress to abandon their traditional non-violent tactics in favour of armed struggle. The government was initially dependent on its largest trade partner, the United Kingdom for arms, spares, and munitions; however, this preference was disrupted by British revulsion at South Africa's controversial domestic and foreign policy. Although British legislation restricting the transmission of certain types of technical armaments to South Africa barely affecting the SADF's defence posture, it spurred diversification efforts, as the regime purchased arms from France, West Germany, Italy, Jordan, and Switzerland during the 1964-1977 period.[15] In 1964 a Belgian licence was obtained for South African manufacture of the FN FAL battle rifle; a year later, a modified version of this weapon and its ammunition was being manufactured in Pretoria's assembly plants. Similarly, Italy granted a licence for production of an advanced trainer, the Aermacchi MB-326. Armscor also purchased systems abroad which were designed to SADF specifications. The most prominent of these were the Mirage III series of fighter aircraft, which were modified in France for South African requirements. Armscor's predecessor, the Munitions Board, had also imported the AML-60 and AML-90 armoured scout cars from France. The vehicles saw action against Cuban T-34 tanks in Angola during Operation Savannah,[16] and the Mirage III and F1 interceptors became the mainstay of the South African Air Force (SAAF).

Although the French supplied relatively modern and advanced weaponry to South Africa, they imposed some restraint on deployment and training. During the Angolan War of Independence, Portugal's request for a loan of Aérospatiale Alouette III (SA.316) helicopters and Panhard armoured cars from South Africa to supplement their own limited resources had to be routed through the French Minister of Defence, Pierre Messmer. The Portuguese contacted Messmer and achieved his written blessing on the condition that the loan was kept secret. Only then could South Africa agree.[17] However, it became increasingly difficult for suppliers to exert control over indigenous weapons produced under licence.

Atlas Aircraft Corporation

The Atlas Aircraft Corporation of South Africa (also known as Atlas Aviation) was established in 1965 to manufacture a number of sophisticated military aircraft and avionics equipment for the South African Air Force, as well as for export.[18] It was established primarily to circumvent an international arms embargo commenced in 1963 against the South African government because of its Apartheid policies.[19] Armscor took control of Atlas in 1968.[20]

In 1992 the Atlas Aircraft Corporation was absorbed into a new entity known as Denel, becoming part of Denel Aviation.[21]

Armscor becomes Denel

The South African state-owned aerospace and defence technology conglomerate Denel was established in April 1992 when the manufacturing subsidiaries of Armscor were split off so that Armscor became the procurement agency for South African Defence Force (SADF), now known as the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Denel inherited most of Armscor's production and research facilities, and over 15,000 employees. At the time of its formation, Denel restructured and reorganised the former Armscor subsidiaries into a number of divisions and subsidiaries within five industrial groups: systems, manufacturing, aerospace, informatics, and properties/engineering services.[22]

Denel has developed a number of notable products, such as:

  • The Umkhonto vertically launched air defence missile.
  • Mokopa tandem warhead anti-tank guided missile, with a range of 10km.
  • Together with Gerald Bull, the G6 self-propelled howitzer and G5 towed howitzer, the longest ranged guns in their class worldwide, supported with base bleed, VLAP and the advanced fuzing technology.
  • The 5th generation A-Darter air-to-air missile, currently in the final phases of development.

Denel's Overberg Test Range is used for advanced aerial testing by high-tech companies such as NASA, EADS and BAE Systems.

Though Denel's market share is increasing, it still has not signed significant international contracts that will bring a real market return for its investments in development and research costs. In 2006, Denel signed a contract with the Finnish Navy for the Umkhonto air defence missile; this was the first sale to a western nation. The Swedish defence force was also interested in the Umkhonto missile, but due to budget constraints had to put their plan on hold. However, Denel's biggest challenge is selling the Rooivalk attack helicopter, which was developed at a cost of Rand 1 billion. Denel lost a contract from Turkey for $2 billion and further orders for the Rooivalk are awaited.[23]

Britain's role

The development of a domestic arms industry was one of the most significant aspects of the militarisation of the apartheid economy. South Africa's arms industry was established with British aid just prior to the Second World War, when training aircraft were assembled locally and the Pretoria branch of the Royal Mint manufactured small arms ammunition (Cawthra, 1986:89). During the war, the arms industry manufactured a substantial amount of basic weaponry for the South African Army and the allies of World War II, including armoured cars, bombs and ammunition. After the war, most of the wartime arms factories converted to their pre-war civilian activities.[24]

During the 1950s and early 1960s, South Africa relied heavily on arms imports (mainly from Britain). However, South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961, and the imposition of a voluntary United Nations arms embargo in 1963, provided the impetus for a shift towards the establishment of a domestic arms industry. The "Armaments Production Board" was established in 1964 to control the manufacture, procurement and supply of all armaments for the South African Defence Force (Simpson, 1989:222). The board also took over the Department of Defence's workshops and the ammunition section of the South African Mint, and was authorised to co-ordinate arms production in the private sector. By the mid-1960s, nearly a thousand private sector firms were involved in various aspects of domestic arms production.

In 1967, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on all states to stop supplying arms to South Africa. In 1968, the Armaments Production Board's name was changed to the "Armaments Board." It was tasked with the procurement of armaments for the SADF and ensuring the optimal utilisation of the private sector for arms production (Simpson, 1989:222). In the same year, the government established the "Armaments Development and Production Corporation (Armscor)". The Defence Ordnance Workshop and the Ammunition Section of the South African Mint became its first full subsidiaries. Over the next few years, Armscor took over various private sector companies, such as Atlas Aircraft Corporation, and established a number of new production and R&D facilities (Cawthra, 1986:98).

In 1973, the government established the Defence Advisory Council (DAC) to co-ordinate the private sector's involvement in domestic arms production (Philip, 1989:205).

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  3. Text of UNSCR 418 of 1977
  4. Coventry Evening Standard 31 March 1984 reporting the arrest and detention of the Coventry Four
  5. "How SA arms team evaded British trial"
  6. "The double standards on terrorism"
  7. The South African Deal: A Case Study in the Arms Trade
  8. Scholtz, Leopold (2013). The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0-624-05410-8.
  9. Duignan, Peter. Politics and Government in African States 1960-1985. pp. 283–408.
  10. Jacklyn Cock, Laurie Nathan (1989). War and Society: The Militarisation of South Africa. New Africa Books. ISBN 978-0-86486-115-3
  11. Henk, Daniel. South Africa's armaments industry: continuity and change after a decade of majority rule (2006 ed.). University Press America. p. 164. ISBN 978-0761834823.
  12. Landgren, Signe. Embargo Disimplemented: South Africa's Military Industry (1989 ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 83–88. ISBN 978-0-19-829127-5.
  13. Polakow-Suransky, Sasha. The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. pp. 1–336.
  14. Kaplan, Irving. South Africa: A Country Study. pp. 1–846.
  16. Du Preez, Sophia. Avontuur in Angola: Die verhaal van Suid-Afrika se soldate in Angola 1975-1976. J.L. van Schaik. p. 182. ISBN 978-0627016912.
  17. Portuguese and South African interaction between 1965 and 1970
  21. "Denel Aviation"

External links

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