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Southern Africans block arms shipment for Zimbabwe, 2008
Once celebrated as a symbol of anti-colonial struggle, Zimbabwe degenerated into a state of chaos during the turn of the 21st century after decades of internal struggle. During the thirty-year rule of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) political corruption and suppression increased alongside a deepening economic and public health crisis. State violence and suppression became explicit especially during election seasons, where ZANU-PF intimidated voters.
On March 29, 2008, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Zimbabwe. The ZANU-PF attempted to repress grassroots organizers and communities that supported the political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Results of the election were withheld for weeks; initial results indicated a majority turnout for MDC. It is speculated that election results were manipulated to force a run-off election, during which ZANU-PF could further intimidate voters.
On April 14, 2008, investigative media reported that a Chinese ship, named the An Yue Jiang, had docked outside Durban harbor in South Africa. The An Yue Jiang, a container ship owned by Chinese state-run ‘Chinese Ocean Shipping Company’, was reported to be carrying millions of rounds of ammunition and weapons destined for Zimbabwe’s Defense Force.
Once the media began reporting, thanks to a timely tip-off by Newsweek editor Martin Welz, civil society groups and organizations took action, without coordination at first. The South African Transport and Allied Worker Union (SATAWU) announced it would refuse to offload weapons or aid in their transfer through South Africa. Religious groups and NGOs concerned about weapon proliferation demonstrated at Durban’s harbor, threatening to block the arms’ passage if it ever were to reach South Africa’s roads. They held signs that read ‘guns go back to China’ and ‘Chinese ship of death.’
Even though the South African government announced it could not interfere with trade between two other countries and claimed it was not involved in the arrangement, it was later discovered that South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee had actually issued permits authorizing the transfer of weapons across the country. This was a disappointment to many, that South Africa would facilitate the transfer of weapons to a government alleged to be committing atrocities.
The permit allowing arms from the An Yue Jiang was deemed illegal according to South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act of 2002, which requires the issuing committee to avoid contributing to the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that do so. The Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) assembled a legal team to draft an official legal challenge. Anglican Bishop of KwaZulu-Natal, Rubin Phillip, and the former head of the religious organization Diakonia, Paddy Kearny, were cited as applicants acting in public interest.
On April 18, 2008, the SALC notified media that they would be working to suspend the transfer permit, requiring arms to be surrendered to South African port authorities. Later that day, Judge Kate Pillay of the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban issued an interim order essentially suspending the transfer permit and prohibiting the transfer of goods from the An Yue Jiang.
But before the order could be delivered to the An Yue Jiang, the ship left the Durban harbor for Maputo, Mozambique, to the northeast of South Africa.
By this point, civil society had become activated and more coordinated. The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa), SALC, the International Transport Workers Federation and their South African affiliate SATAWU, and the media helped alert the public that the ship was heading for Mozambique. They shared information of the ships whereabouts, which became difficult as the ship intermittently shut off its transponder.
Legal counsel was contacted in Mozambique to arrange another legal challenge. As in South Africa, transport workers with the International Transport Workers Federation and SATAWU in Mozambique announced they would not offload the arms nor facilitate their transfer.
Mozambique authorities announced that they had not received a request for assistance from the An Yue Jiang and would not grant any. In light of the announcement, the ship reversed course along the South African coastline. Without valid authorization from any ports, SALC called on the South African Defense Force to use law enforcement powers to halt the ship.
It became clear that the ship would have to dock soon to refuel. Civil society groups alerted partners in Namibia and Angola to prevent the offloading and transfer of weapons there.
The Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek, Namibia prepared for a court challenge, civil society demonstrations were held, and church leaders and trade unions spoke out against offloading weapons. These civil society protests were the largest post-independence demonstrations in Namibia up to that time. Around this time, Zambia’s president called on other African countries not to let the ship enter their waters so as not to escalate post-election tensions in Zimbabwe.
Luanda, Angola was listed as the next port of call after Durban. Osisa unsuccessfully attempted a court order to prohibit the ship from docking there. Church leaders, trade unions and civil society again held demonstrations. In response to this opposition, Angolan authorities allowed the ship to refuel, but refused to allow offloading of arms cargo.
About this time, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier, traveling the region at the time, urged her counterparts not to allow the ship to dock.
On May 6, 2008, the An Yue Jiang left Luanda for its return to China, without unloading any arms cargo.
Some media outlets later reported that the ship had in fact offloaded arms in Angola after refueling in South Africa, but the reports contradict observed refueling in Luanda and reports by human rights inspectors that deny the offloading of arms. China's Foreign Ministry itself denied reports that the weapons had arrived in Zimbabwe.
The campaign was deemed a success. Even though Zimbabwe received arms from other sources, civil society in southern Africa showed solidarity with Zimbabwean people by preventing the An Yue Jiang from offloading arms cargo, sending a clear message to the region’s political leaders about the concern for Zimbabweans’ well being. The resistance helped uncover the region’s leaders’ willingness to facilitate Zimbabwe’s lawlessness and helped spur public outrage.
A few weeks after the ship departed, SALC and Osisa attempted to strengthen the networks activated during the campaign by organizing a ‘Stand Up for Zimbabwe’ campaign throughout the region. Actions were held in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, and elsewhere at sporting and music events to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, post-election violence displaced 3,000 people, injured 500 and left 10 dead according to a Movement for Democratic Change secretary. In September 2008, an agreement was reached between Mugabe and MDC leadership in which Mugabe was to remain president and Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC was to become prime minister. Zimbabwe continued to struggle over issues of democracy, human rights, and state violence.