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South Africa moves to stamp out mercenaries

South Africa moves to tighten its strict anti-mercenaries laws, proposing legislation that may have far-reaching implications for its citizens working in Iraq.
/ Source: Reuters

South Africa moved on Monday to tighten its strict anti-mercenaries laws, proposing legislation that may have far-reaching implications for its citizens working in Iraq.

The government wants to clamp down on civilians and former soldiers fighting or offering security in armed conflicts and to stamp out attempts to overthrow other African states.

But the law tabled in parliament on Monday would still allow South Africans to engage in "liberation struggles" similar to the decades-long fight for freedom against South Africa's former white apartheid rulers.

The proposed bill follows the conviction of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's son for helping to finance a failed coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea that also involved scores of South Africans.

Mark Thatcher received a fine and suspended sentence under a current law that the government says is not tough enough.

"It is evident from the small number of prosecutions and convictions under the (current law) ... that the Act inadequately combats mercenary activities and fails to provide the regulation of certain forms of assistance," the Department of Defense said in the draft bill.

South Africans, many trained in apartheid-era forces, have been involved in a series of mercenary operations abroad.

Lured by salaries
Thousands of South Africans are also believed to be working in the security sector in Iraq, lured by enticing salaries.

The new law would regulate people working in armed conflict areas, as designated by the president, requiring them to apply to the government to be able to seek such employment.

But it would exclude "legitimate armed struggles" — fights for "national liberation, self-determination, resistance against occupation, aggression or domination by foreign nationals or foreign forces in accordance with international law."

South Africa's ruling African National Congress fought its own battle against apartheid and so it does not want to prevent its nationals from supporting similar liberation struggles.

Some critics have said that this clause could stop South Africans from working on the side of Western allies in Iraq but allow them to take up arms for insurgents fighting U.S.-led forces in the country.

But security analyst Kurt Shillinger at the South African Institute for International Affairs dismissed this criticism, telling Reuters, "the ANC safeguards its legacy as a successful liberation movement. It identifies itself with like-minded movements and there are not many out there."