The people of Zimbabwe have been waiting patiently – perhaps too patiently – to hear the outcome of elections that are now almost three weeks old. Since yesterday, they’ve been waiting to see what happens to the cargo of the An Yue Jiang.
According to the Times of London, the ship left China in late March, at roughly the time of the March 29th election. (This is London reports that the arms deal was finalized on April 1st, three days after the elections, late enough for the ZANU-PF government to know they were facing a lost or closely contested election.)
The ship carries mining cargo for Botswana, and a 77 tons of small arms destined for Zimbabwe – AK-47 rounds, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells. There is understandable fear that this materiel could be transferred from the Zimbabwe government to pro-government militias, or simply used against by the military in attacks on citizens who demand that MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangarai be allowed to take power. As “Hope” writing on “This is Zimbabwe” puts it, “We call them guns; Mugabe calls them ‘campaign materials'”.
South African President Thabo Mbeki faced international pressure to block the shipment – he and his staff argued that this was a legitimate transaction between governments, and pointed out that Zimbabwe doesn’t currently face an arms embargo. Fortunately, many South Africans disagreed with that position.
The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, an organization that represents 300,000 South African workers, refused to unload the ship, citing concerns about arming a government that does not appear to be respecting election results. (It was briefly reported that a state-owned company, Armscor, might be asked to unload the ship over the objections of SATAWU.) And Anglican bishop Rubin Phillips, backed up by the South African Litigation Center, petitioned the Durban High Court to block the shipment. The court ordered that the ship could be offloaded, but that the cargo could not be transmitted across the South Africa/Zimbabwe border. Reuters reports that the ship has subsequently left Durban, evidently without offloading the arms.
So what now? Now we watch other Southern African ports to see whether the ship will be allowed to dock and offload elsewhere. Keep a close eye on Beira, a port city in Mozambique that’s an easy drive to Harare. It will be interesting to see whether civil society in Mozambique is capable of mobilizing as effectively as South African organizations did. Don’t bet on it.
Heh. Or maybe they’re in more of a hurry. According to a NYTimes story, “the last radio transmission the authorities heard from the ship was this: ‘Next port, Maputo,’ referring to the capital of Mozambique.” Interesting. The main roads from Maputo to Zimbabwe pass through South Africa. I still think Beira is a better bet, as it’s a straight shot from Mozambique to Zimbabwe.
Mozambique’s Transport and Communications Minister Paulo Zucula told Reuters that Mozambique has been monitoring the movements of the ship since it lifted anchor and left South Africa. “We know that it registered its next destination as Luanda because here we wouldn’t allow it into Mozambican waters without prior arrangements”, he said.
Well, at least one member government of the SADC is beginning to wake up to the folly of continued support for Robert Mugabe. If the story about the Chinese arms shipment arriving at Durban was not broken by the South African independent news magazine “Noseweek”, Mebeki’s government officials would have allowed the trans-shipment to Zimbabwe go through without a hitch.
The dockworkers and president of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and others who worked hard to stop the offloading of the arms in Durban need to be commended for their efforts.
Now it is up to the rest of us who care about what happens to the people of Zimbabwe to stay on top of this story, track the “Freighter of Death” as it steams for its next undisclosed port of entry, and prevent the offloading and trans-shipment of bullets and RPG’s for Mugabe’s henchmen. How do you get 77 tons of munitions and armaments from Luanda to Harrare? Through the jungle via backroads or by rail?
COSCO, the huge Chinese state-owned ocean freight company, certainly knows the present position and next destination of the An Yue Jiang. There must be a service available online that tracks and maps the position of various maritime vessels just as aircraft are tracked and mapped. If you know about such a service, let us know ASAP.
Here is another excerpt from that Reuters article referenced by John Chilton that I felt is worth repeating here:
Zimbabwe’s deputy information minister, Bright Matonga, said on Friday that no party had the right to stop the shipment.
“Every country has got a right to acquire arms. There is nothing wrong with that. If they are for Zimbabwe, they will definitely come to Zimbabwe,” he told South Africa’s SAFM radio.
“How they are used, when they are going to be used is none of anybody’s business.”
For its part, China is trying to prevent the controversy from fuelling criticism over its human rights record and rule in Tibet ahead of hosting the Olympics in August. Violent protests have followed the Olympic torch across the globe.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a short faxed statement to Reuters that it had seen the reports about the ship, but “did not understand the actual situation”.
“China and Zimbabwe maintain normal trade relations. What we want to stress is China has always had a prudent and responsible attitude towards arms sales, and one of the most important principles is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” the statement said.
My bet would be the Port of Beira too. It is only a +- 200km rail (most reliable method) trip via Chimoio to Manica and a spit distance across the border to Mutare. It is already rumoured that chinese military personnell are circulating in mutare. Most of the rural MDC opposition are concentrated in the eastern side of the country. A trip to Luanda is questionable, as the ship would appear to be low on fuel, and this would mean that the weaponry would have to be flown out as road and rail (and distance) are all hazardous from this side. Either way, individuals in both countries would be easier to ‘buy’ than the ‘blind eye’ government officials of South Africa. Could Radio Hams (yes the ‘old crew’ with valves and dials) not be used to try and track the ship?
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