Public Inquiry into Rheinmetall Denel Explosion

By Terry Crawford-Browne, World BEYOND War – South Africa, April 22, 2021

More than two and a half years have now passed since the explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) plant in Macassar in September 2018 that killed eight workers.  A Department of Labour notice has announced that a public inquiry will at last be held in the Macassar Old Civic Hall, Brug Street during Monday 3 May until Friday 7 May from 09:00 to 16:00. For further details, contact M.N.Dyulete 082-788-2147 or email:

A Labour Department investigation was completed in June 2019, and was submitted then to the national inspector for a decision whether RDM should be prosecuted.[i]  Even the Premier of the Western Cape has been unable to access that report, and inquests have still not been undertaken into the deaths of those eight workers.

The inquiry will ironically coincide with hearings on 5 May by the German Bundestag in Berlin in conjunction with the United Nations.  Those hearings will include focus upon how German arms companies such as Rheinmetall deliberately locate their production in countries such as South Africa to evade German arms export regulations.[ii]

The 96 page Open Secrets report released in March and entitled “Profiting from Misery: South Africa’s Complicity in War Crimes in Yemen” is an appalling indictment on repeated failures by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee to enforce the obligations of the NCAC Act. This legislation stipulates that South Africa will not export arms to countries that abuse human rights and/or to regions in conflict.[iii]

In addition to its exports of munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, RDM in 2016 designed and installed a $240 million ammunition factory in Saudi Arabia.[iv]  RDM even prevailed upon former President Zuma to open that factory with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who, one month after the explosion at RDM, was involved in the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

After the NCACC finally suspended South African arms exports to the Middle East, RDM negotiated a major export contract to Turkey. Germany prohibits arms exports to Turkey because of human rights abuses against the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  In April/May 2020, and in violation of Covid aviation restrictions, six flights of Turkish A400M airfreighters landed at Cape Town airport to upload RDM munitions.[v]  The Turkish assault in Libya began three weeks later.

It is still unknown at this time whether those RDM munitions have also been used by Turkey against Kurdish civilians in Syria and Iraq, and whether Turkey supplied them to Azerbaijan for use in last year’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  The former chair of the NCACC, the late Minister Jackson Mthembu indicated that an inquiry would be held.  Nothing has happened a year later.

No less than the Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) has estimated that 40 to 45 percent of global corruption can be traced back to the arms trade. That corruption goes-right-to-the top amongst politicians around the world, even including the British royal family. The smokescreen of “national security” is invariably applied when such corruption is exposed.  As an example:  British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006 shut down the British Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribes paid by the British arms company, BAE to secure arms export contracts with Saudi Arabia, South Africa and six other countries, falsely claiming that the SFO investigation into bribery threatened British national security.

The UN Security Council in November 1977 imposed a mandatory arms embargo against apartheid South Africa.[vi]  Rheinmetall in 1979 flouted that embargo and also German arms export regulations by shipping an entire ammunition factory to South Africa, via Brazil.[vii]  Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Reagan administration officials deliberately instigated an eight year war between Iraq and Iran. The intention was to exhaust both Iran and Iraq. The world is still suffering the consequences more than 40 years later, as evidenced by the Trump administration and Israeli efforts to destroy the JCPOA agreement with Iran regarding nuclear weapons.  No mention is of course made in either the US or Europe about Israeli nuclear weapons developed in conjunction with apartheid South Africa during the 1980s.[viii]

That Rheinmetall factory located outside Potchefstroom supplied the 155mm shells for the 200 G5 artillery guns that Armscor exported to Iraq. In turn, that contract was facilitated by Robert Gates who in 1991 became the Director of the CIA and later, in 2006, the US Secretary of Defence.  The weapons trade (including missile technology) during the 1980s between South Africa and Iraq amounted to $4.5 billion, and was paid for with Iraqi oil.

Likewise, more than 80 German companies led by Rheinmetall, Thyssen, Siemens, MBB and Ferrostaal constructed a huge range of weapons facilities in Iraq. These facilities included the technology for the Samarra gas works that was used by Saddam Hussein to gas an estimated 5 000 Kurdish Iraqis in March 1988.[ix]

Apartheid South Africa eagerly participated in the Iran-Contra scandal, with both funding and weapons. In return, a CIA front company, International Signal and Control (ISC) and Israel supplied South Africa with the technology for development of Armscor’s ballistic missile programme, which was intended to have the capacity to deliver both nuclear warheads and space satellites.  South Africa thus became one of many conduits to transfer American missile technology to Iraq for use against Iran.

Armscor’s Somchem (now RDM since 2008) and Houwteq in Grabouw plus Somchem’s Hangklip test range at Rooi Els were the main centres for South Africa’s missile programme, which the Americans closed down after 1991.[x] The Iraq Gate scandal in Washington exposed how the CIA, the war business and banks had unleashed monsters in Iraq, South Africa, Germany and many other countries.[xi]

The inquiry in Macassar must also reopen the investigation into the crash of the SAA Helderberg in November 1987 in which all 159 passengers and crew died.  That crash remains one of the unresolved mysteries of the apartheid era. The 1988 Margo Commission of Inquiry was dismissed as a “whitewash.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in 1998 were inconclusive, but recommended further investigation. The TRC report records:

“South Africa’s ammonium perchlorate (APC) production facility was set up in the 1970s at Somchem. Around the time of the Helderberg crash, South Africa was involved in military operations in Angola, Namibia and on the home front. The operational demand for solid rocket fuels was high. Somchem was not keeping up with the demand. A decision was made to double the capacity.  This involved shutting down the plant for the duration of the extensions.

Because of the ongoing demand, it was impossible to stockpile APC prior to the shutdown. Obviously a large quantity of APC had to be sourced outside the country for a period of several months in defiance of prevailing military sanctions.  This was difficult and expensive, and I believe that initially the necessary APC was sourced from America and that it was brought in on SAA passenger planes as an integral part of the necessary deception.”[xii]

APC is an ingredient in rocket fuel, and is highly combustible. There were then only two APC manufacturers in the US in the 1980s, both located in Nevada. Five months after the Helderberg crash, the PEPCON plant on the fringe of Las Vegas caught fire.  It created what is described by NASA as the “largest non-nuclear explosion in recorded history.”[xiii]  It is not yet known what the health consequences are of APC contamination of water supplies. Is APC still being manufactured at RDM?  If so what are the safety and environmental dangers for the Macassar community?  It is long established that it is untenable to locate ammunition factories in residential areas.

Did the US supply APC in Taiwan for collection and transportation to Cape Town aboard a SAA passenger plane?  If so, it would have been in violation of the UN arms embargo, the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (which Reagan vetoed but which the US Senate overrode), plus international aviation regulations.  The Iraq Gate scandal in Washington was buried in 1993 by the Republicans and again in 1995 by the Democrats.[xiv]  It is well documented that the negotiations between Vice President Gore and Deputy President Mbeki regarding ISC, Armscor, Denel, Fuchs and South Africa’s missile ambitions were fraught with difficulties.[xv]

Did Gore and Mbeki finally in 1997 agree upon a “gagging order” regarding the Helderberg? And is that the reason that the Department of Transport in 2002 falsely announced that it had no new information, and closed down the Helderberg investigation?

An enhanced copy of the cockpit voice recorder tape, apparently verified in the US in 2000 by the FBI, evidently recorded a crew member asking:  “what are we carrying?” Another voice, thought to be that of the pilot, Captain Uys replies:  “I believe it is rocket fuel”.[xvi]

Now more than 33 years since the crash, it is long past time that the families of the passengers and crew who died have closure on what happened to their loved ones, and for the Helderberg investigation to be reopened.


[i]               Marvin Charles, “Probe into #Denel Explosion that left eight dead is complete,” Cape Argus, 25 June 2019.

[ii]               Rheinmetall Defence – Markets and Development Strategy, 2016 page 22.

[iii]              Suraya Dadoo, “South Africa’s State arms export industry stained by blood of Yemeni civilians,” Sunday Times, 21 March  2021

[iv]              “Saudi Arabia opens munitions factory built by Rheinmetall Denel Munitions,” Defenceweb, 4 April 2016.

[v]               Carien du Plessis “Questions Persist as South Africa Allows the Sale of Munitions to Turkey,” Daily Maverick, 5 May 2020.

[vi]              UN Security Council Resolution 418, 4 November 1977

[vii]             Narnia Bohler-Muller, “Reparations for Apartheid-Era Human Rights Abuses: The Ongoing Struggle of Khulumani Support Group Human Sciences Research Group, September 2012.

[viii]             Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Pantheon Books, 2010.

[ix]              Kenneth Timmerman, The Death Lobby:  How The West Armed Iraq, Bantam Books, 1992

[x]               “South Africa’s Nuclear Autopsy,” Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, 1 January 1996

[xi]              Alan Friedman, Spider’s Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, Bantam Books, 1993

[xii]             TRC report, volume 2, 1998.

[xiii]             “From Rockets to Ruins:  The PEPCON Ammonium Perchlorate Plant Explosion,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Volume 6, Issue 9, November 2012.

[xiv]             Kenneth Timmerman, “Whatever Happened to Iraq Gate?” The American Spectator 1 November 1996.

[xv]              M.S Van Wyk, The 1977 US Arms Embargo against South Africa: institution and implementation to 1997,  Chapter 7, “The Clinton Administration and the end of the Arms Embargo, 1993-1998”, PhD dissertation University of Pretoria, 2005.

[xvi]             Letter from Neels van Wyk addressed to Advocate John Welch, Head: Special Investigative Unit, Office of the National Prosecutor, Pretoria, 5 July 2001.

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