A Denel G-6 howitzer tank. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
A Denel G-6 howitzer tank. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

SA’s defence industry is facing a crisis as the state-owned arms maker Denel struggles to survive, and rapidly agreeing to equity partnerships is the only way to save it, one of the country’s top defence officials has said. 

Denel’s woes put at risk an industry estimated to directly employ about 15,000 people in one of SA’s most advanced sectors, said Armscor CEO Kevin Wakeford.

Armscor is responsible for procuring military hardware for SA’s armed forces. It also serves as custodian for South African defence-related intellectual property.

“The defence industry is the beachhead for high-level engineering and technological jobs in the South African economy,” Wakeford said.

“We are at an inflection point. If Denel collapses, those capabilities could be lost forever.”

Denel has been plagued by years of mismanagement and exposure to a far-reaching influence-peddling scandal that led banks to cut off lending. It recorded a R1.7 bn loss — its first in eight years — in the financial year to end-March.

Its cash flow crisis has led to delays in paying suppliers and left some assembly lines idle. Many smaller companies producing sub-systems and components for Denel products have folded.

“For us, the operational readiness of the South African National Defence Force is a top priority,” Wakeford said.

“The situation has never been more severe than it is now.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s third-largest defence spender, has approached SA, seeking to partner with Denel as part of efforts to establish its own defence industry. One source familiar with the offer said the bid — which would include acquisition of Denel’s stake in a joint venture with Germany’s Rheinmetall — was worth about $1bn.

However, a potential deal has been complicated by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Concerns have also been raised, including by Denel’s chair, over ceding strategic security assets.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said earlier this month that Saudi Arabia was one of several suitors interested in Denel and that no decision on a partner had been taken.

Wakeford said equity partnerships were the only way to get Denel working again and that it was possible to safeguard the country’s national interests by including veto rights in any agreements.

“For Denel’s turnaround, there shouldn’t be any holy cows … Denel can’t trade itself out of its current predicament,” Wakeford said.

“You don’t have to allow your technology to be pillaged by modern-day Vikings.”