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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 April 2006, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
S Africa gets tough on 'mercenaries'
By Jonathan Charles
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

A new South African law aims to crack down on "mercenaries" but critics say it could stop people working legitimately in conflict areas.

A group of 70 men accused of involvement in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea sitting in a Zimbabwe court for their first hearing
South Africans were accused of a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea
South Africa has long had the reputation as a recruiting ground for the "dogs of war".

If you want to hire a mercenary, one phone call to certain South African towns is said to be sufficient to enable the hiring of a small private army.

I have seen South African mercenaries in many conflicts in Africa. I remember watching them operating helicopter gunships in the jungles of Sierra Leone during the civil war there in the 1990s.

They made a crucial difference, eventually driving out the rebels and allowing the restoration of the legitimate government.

Now, though, the South African Government wants to stop its citizens from undertaking such work.

It is toughening laws which will ban South Africans from working in zones of conflict.

The legislation is so wide-ranging that the repercussions will be felt way beyond South Africa, perhaps as far afield as Iraq, Afghanistan and even Britain.

Foiled plot

The government is taking action after South Africans were involved in a recent attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea.

It was organised by a Briton and funded partially - and he says unwittingly - by Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

I received a call from my friend saying there was a certain chap who was looking for guys
Jose, former mercenary

Dozens of South Africans with military experience were recruited.

The plot was foiled when their plane landed in Zimbabwe to pick up supplies and was detained by the authorities.

Jose was one of those recruited for the aborted coup. He spent 14 months in prison in Zimbabwe.

Jose was working as a security guard when he was offered the job.

He told me: "I received a call from my friend saying there was a certain chap who was looking for guys."

The friend was someone he knew from his old military unit, 32 Battalion.

Jose, now in his 30s, is of Angolan origin, a black soldier recruited for what was an elite unit under South Africa's old apartheid regime.

He accepts that he and the others who took part in the Equatorial Guinea affair might have been the trigger for the government's fresh crackdown on mercenary activity.

South Africa is clamping down because it believes such activity is incompatible with its foreign policy goal of promoting African unity and global peace.

Mercenary past

Under South Africa's former white rulers, instability in Africa was welcomed because it stopped other countries from ganging up on the apartheid government.

Phenye Vilakazi, politician
South Africa must make sure where it puts its mouth, it also puts its action
SA politician Phenye Vilakazi
Stretching back as far as the Congo in the 1960s when Major "Mad Mike" Hoare led a private army, South Africans have been active as mercenaries.

The country's politicians know that the new law is controversial and are reluctant to talk about it.

One leading South African politician, Phenye Vilakazi, was prepared to break the silence.

He told the programme: "I share in South Africa's vision of having a peaceful world and South Africa should do its bit for that.

"South Africa must take the necessary leadership to make sure that where it puts its mouth, it also puts its action."

He sees it as part of a global initiative to stamp out mercenary activity.

"The world is trying and South Africa can't remain asleep during this great revolution of making sure that we create a peaceful world," he said.

Special permission

This new law, though, has been accused of overkill.

It not only seeks to prevent people from working as mercenaries but also from undertaking any activity in conflict zones, unless the government grants special permission.

Peter Leon, lawyer
It stops anybody from performing any service in any area of armed conflict
Peter Leon, lawyer
That is bad news for the estimated 1,100 South Africans who are working in Iraq as security contractors as technically their work would also be rendered unlawful.

I have often come across South Africans on my visits to Iraq.

They are frequently used as "sniffer-dog" handlers at checkpoints in the Green Zone, the coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

They work for companies that have contracts with the US, including protecting oil wells.

Many of the firms that employ them are British and they are very unhappy with the thrust of the South African legislation.

Peter Leon, a South African lawyer representing the British Association of Private Security Companies, is trying to get the law amended.

He told me: "Obviously, the legislation seeks to prevent mercenary activity and we have no problem with that but the real problem is that it stops not just South African companies or South African individuals, but anybody from performing any service in any area of armed conflict, anywhere in the world."

Liberation struggle

Critics of the legislation say it would even stop charities from rendering humanitarian assistance to war zones.

Bizarrely though, the law would allow South Africans to support "national liberation; self-determination; independence against colonialism, or resistance against occupation, aggression or domination by foreign nationals or foreign forces".

If I can't work in security, how can I feed my family, my children?
So, technically as the proposed law is written at the moment, South Africans might be able to join the insurgents in Iraq even if they couldn't work as security guards for the coalition forces or the current Iraqi Government.

It is not the moral issue which worries men like Jose, the former mercenary.

He is concerned the law will stop him doing legitimate security work, such as guarding diamond mines outside South Africa.

It will stop him using his only skill - his military training.

Jose asked me: "I'm sitting here without a job and if I can't work in security, how can I feed my family, my children?"

The question is not one the government is prepared to answer.

The country's image it seems is more important than the fate of a few ex-soldiers.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 6 April, 2006, at 1102 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 10 April, 2006, at 2030 BST.

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