Vast piles of ammunition and missiles. Low-flying fighter jets. Children playing with weapons. The Top Gun soundtrack blasting over the loudspeaker. If any of this sounds like your idea of a good weekend, then an arms trade show is the place for you.

A recent opinion piece by John Stupart, the editor of the African Defence Review, defended the arms industry from those who would slander its good name. With reference to the African Aerospace and Defence (AAD) 2014, a massive exhibition held at Waterkloof Airforce Base that is open to the public for two days, he argues that “pessimists’’ have associated the weapons trade with state terror and crooked business deals. According to his article, the AAD expo highlighted the innovative, potentially lifesaving products of an industry that is unfairly maligned by armchair critics “lost in the wash of post-arms deal hysteria”. I was at the same exhibition, but unlike the boosterish Stupart, I came away feeling profoundly disturbed − and not just because of the blatant parade of the latest machines of death and repression. The AAD demonstrates the utter cynicism of the defence and ‘security’ industries, which with their state partners have created a model for endlessly profiteering from war and disaster.

The Waterkloof Airforce Base, most famous for being ground zero of the Guptagate scandal, is a major airforce base situated near Pretoria. Every two years it becomes the site of the AAD − “Africa’s largest exhibition of air, sea and land capability”. On that weekend a military show is held for the public, in which a variety of aircraft, from biplanes to Gripen fighter jets, perform impressive feats while the SANDF plays war games on the ground. But more importantly, the massive hangars on the base become exhibition halls for hundreds of companies, ranging from the American giant Lockheed Martin to the Cape Town-based GI combat supplies, which offers such gear as the 24-7 series tactical pants, which are described “as welcome as a guest at a social function as they are a welcome participant at on stakeout or on patrol”. The initial novelty of being in what is effectively a death supermarket wanes quickly because of the sheer volume of weapons on display – a drone over here, surface-to-air missiles and riot-suppression guns over there. The feeling of banality is compounded by the setting − a key site of South African state power which for the public days gains all the trappings of a dismal festival. Overpriced food, warm drinks, security guards to ensure that alcohol is kept in designated zones. And the base is an abrasive setting in its own right; it’s dusty and shadeless, and the flyovers by fighter jets jar the teeth. In the relentless sun, everything starts to become hazy, out of joint. At times, you feel that you had wondered into newsreel footage of a 1950s nuclear test and that at any moment a mushroom cloud will erupt on the horizon.

But such violent imagery is not welcome in the antiseptic commercial environment of AAD. While each company and exhibitor promotes the ruthless efficiency of their wares, there’s no reference to their devastating physical and psychological consequences. But while the real-world violence of the arms industry was hidden under thick walls of advertising newspeak, the size of the festival and the number of different countries with displays indicates the sheer size of the global trade − and this was just the licit, publicly visible side of it. The event saw major exhibits from the United States, China and Russia, as well as emergent producers such as Germany, India and Pakistan. Interestingly, while the various promotional materials I took from displays were coy about the consequences of the weapons, they were generally candid about how arms are first and foremost a profit-making industry. A pamphlet by Rostoc notes that the corporation aims to improve the “situation in Russia’s machine building and its most technology intensive component − the military-idustrial [sic] complex”.

I was surprised to see the casual usage of the phrase “military industrial complex” as it’s normally something you only come across in critiques of the arm industry. The term was famously used in Dwight Eishenhower’s 1961 farewell address in which the former US president presumably felt guilty about the massive Cold War arms store he had helped to build up. In his speech he warned of a dangerous collusion between military establishments, the arms industry and politicians, all of which gained huge profits and power from constant preparation for war. But as investigative journalist and author Nick Turse points out, this the symbiotic relationship extended beyond weapons manufacture − technology, research, the computing industry and academia all benefited from military linkages. And as the Russian example highlights, the previous century saw many countries develop their own complexes. The end of the Cold War appeared to threaten global military budgets, with Colin Powell lamenting in 1991: “I’m running out of demons. I’m down to Kim Il-sung and [Fidel] Castro.”

However, the defence industry has proven to be adaptable, providing weapons and technology for the theoretically endless wars on terror, drugs and crime. Notably, many of the weapons on sale at AAD were for policing, surveillance, crowd control and border monitoring rather than for warfare between states. The industry is also astute at identifying the latest demons, with many of the displays making a big noise about the new dangers of rhino poaching and sea piracy. But as Andrew Feinstein points out in his book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, the industry does not just profit from violent conflict − it actively makes the world more dangerous. To give just two examples, the proliferation in small arms has prolonged and made even more lethal conflicts in Africa, while the US defence industry both lobbied for, and made enormous profits from, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The arms industry exists at the intersection where governments drive for power and control meets corporate accumulation, making for a spectacularly venal form of capitalism.

During apartheid, a home-grown military-industrial complex emerged as the white regime attempted to maintain its arsenal in response to UN boycotts on weapons sales − a build-up that was eagerly assisted by domestic and international capital. The post-apartheid descendants of this industry were highly visible at AAD. The state-owned Denel offered Umkhonto missiles and drones at its various displays, one of which had a deep crowd of people eager for free caps and defence-themed calendars. But the most noticeable exhibition was that of the privately owned Paramount Group. Paramount has a particularly high profile in the arms world, much of which seems tied in with its founder Ivor Ichikowitz, who seems to inspire particularly fawning journalism, with one egregious profile describing him as an idealistic “pacifist” dedicated to uplifting Africa through building up defence capacities. Based on his interviews, he seems like a sophisticated marketer who promotes the idea of defence as a humanitarian enterprise of bolstering the capacity of African states to defeat extremism and to, as he puts it, escape from the “Washington neoliberal agenda”. It’s a canny move because it presents the industry as a thin green line against al-Shabab, the Lord’s Resistance Army or whoever, and implies that criticisms are just the impractical snipping of those who have no practical solutions for helping people on the ground. In a similar vein, a drone trade publication, the imaginatively titled Unmanned, pondered how bleeding hearts will feel when these vehicles save lives during hypothetical “humanitarian aid / disaster-relief operations”.

The very word “defence” suggests protection from unprovoked threats, which downplays how much of the weaponry on sale is actively used to bolster domestic authoritarianism. For example, one of the most noticeable Paramount Group displays was its Maverick internal security vehicle, which last year was purchased by the military police in Rio de Janeiro, who have a grim record of attacking protesters as well as of extrajudicial executions.

Indeed, it seems the arms industry is reflectively defensive about the negative cultural image of the amoral gunrunner − selling to all sides, briefcases changing hands in hotel rooms, cocaine, gunpowder. I noticed only one stereotypical specimen of this at the event, running around in loud, clashing clothes, doing deals on his phone. He seemed almost a quaint relic among the industry’s curated image of conservative suits and performing a valuable public service. Huge efforts went into presenting the event as something fun and entertaining for the whole family. Most blatantly, this entailed marketing aimed at children. The Paramount Group brought a giant rhino-themed robot, a South African version of the Transformers featured in Michael Bay’s ongoing series of cinematic crimes. I saw one little girl playing with a Styrofoam model of the same type of killer drones that are terrorising children of her age in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It made me think of my own youthful enthusiasm for toy weapons and what effect being taken to AAD would have had one me at her age. What strikes me is that not that this type of marketing is teaching children to be killers but that it is designed to encourage the idea that these vast national security-corporate-state apparatuses on display are there for our defence, to protect us from a dangerous world. We are allowed to see it on display days, but the rest of the time we must accept that it is there, in the shadows, for our own benefit − never mind the vast amount of public funds diverted into unaccountable projects, the horrors committed in the name of security, the outrageous distortion of truth that claims that offensive weapon systems are ploughshares of peace. At an early age, these children are being shown the power of state and capital, and taught that these are natural facts of life; this saves them from chaos and allows them to be productive subjects.

Although the air show aspect of the exhibition was less overtly problematic, if you paid attention it offered a similarly insidious myth-making. While it was undoubtedly stirring to see the acrobatics of the various planes, they were presented as a kind of technological sublime with no reference to their intended uses. But in the flights you could trace the outline of an entire century of war. World War II-era museum planes. The Impala and Cheetah fighters used during the various apartheid wars on neighbouring countries. The Gripen Fighters from the Arms Deal. A drone to represent the avant-garde of aerial warfare. Appropriately, this year’s festival coincided with the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, in which 16 million people died in a global conflict partly sparked by an arms race between European political elites. This wasn’t any mention of that war at AAD; it would have been too on the nose.

On the way back from exhibition, the Gautrain snaked past Alexandra, which earlier this year saw the army deployed during protests around the national election. In a move that will surely be welcomed by the local defence and security industry, the SAPS has called for a new public order budget of R3.3 billion, which includes a wish list of sonic weapons and “a training facility where the terrain of environments ranging from suburbs to townships can be simulated”. Even drone manufacturers are hoping to one day expand into the emerging South African social conflict market with “Skunk Riot Control Copters”. Even the ticket system for the Gautrain itself is provided by French arms group Thales, allegedly as a benefit from arms deal bribery. In this country, burning townships and sleek trains are both enfolded in the war-money nexus.



Main Gif: Members of the public walk by a Chinese arms  stand at African Aerospace and Defence 2014 by Dean Hutton

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