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Italy and Arms Embargo Against Apartheid South Africa

27 February 2010

My Reminiscences
by Enuga S. Reddy

After the UN Security Council resolutions on the arms embargo against South Africa in 1973, and especially when the British Labour Government imposed an arms embargo, the South African government was anxious to set up an aircraft industry.

It purchased Aermacchi MB 326 M planes from Italy and obtained licences to manufacture them. This plane had Rolls-Royce engines but an Italian company could transfer the licence. Italian immigrants were recruited for the industry and spare parts were obtained from Italy.

The plane was named Impala-I in South Africa. The South African press reported this deal in 1965. The Special Committee then reported to the General Assembly. It also took up the matter repeatedly with the Italian Government. (I found out privately from an Italian diplomat that the Italian government - I believe Saragat - did approve the deal). Italy responded by repeated flat denials. It also complained to the UN secretariat against me because the Centre against Apartheid published a statement by Abdul Minty before the Special Committee which referred to the matter.

Some years later, an improved version of the plane-Impala-II-was produced in South Africa. Press reports indicated that this was also Italian. Again, Italy denied any deal.

Italy informed the Special Committee on 18 September 1974 and 24 March 1977 that it was applying a strict embargo on arms to South Africa since the Security Council adopted resolution 311 in 1972 for a stricter embargo. (Italy,  then a member of the Security Council, voted for the resolution). It avoided any reference to the resolutions of the Security Council in 1963 and 1964 calling for an arms embargo.

After the Security Council decided on a binding arms embargo in November 1977, the Special Committee wrote to both Italy and the UK asking them to investigate jointly how South Africa obtained licences to manufacture an Italian plane with British engines. There was no reply.

In 1978, the Italian Ambassador approached Ambassador Harriman, Chairman of the Special Committee. He said Italy did not want to reply to the Committee. But because of good relations with Nigeria, he wanted to inform Ambassador Harriman that Italy sold the first version of the aircraft but not the second.

As the matter was pursued, Italy finally sent a formal letter to the Special Committee on 26 September 1978 giving that information. It claimed it had strictly implemented the embargo since 1972. It disclosed:

"The licence for the production of the South African version of Aermacchi MB 326M ("Impala I"), was ceded una tantum by contract between the Italian firm Aermacchi and Atlas Aircraft of South Africa as long ago as 1964. The Impala I was produced under licence by Atlas, entirely in South Africa since the late sixties. Under the clauses of the manufacturing licence, Aermacchi continued to provide Atlas Aircraft with some more advanced components of the MB 326 until 1972. The last export licence related to this contract was issued by the Italian authorities prior to the adoption of Res. 311 (1972), although the operation took place at a later date, and it concerned four airframes of the MB 326K model produced by Aermacchi (and not complete planes, as has been erroneously published)…. Following the ban imposed by the Italian authorities in 1972 on export licences for armaments supplies to South Africa, Atlas Aircraft has developed autonomously its own version of the MB 326K, which is known as "Impala II", and whose design derives only partially from the Italian prototype…

"As for the Rolls-Royce "Viper" engines… the licence was ceded by Piaggo S.p.A. (and not by FIAT, as it was at times erroneously stated) to Atlas Aircraft in 1964 contextually with the cession of the licence for the MB 326. For many years, that engine has been produced entirely in South Africa; thus the revocation of its licence would have the same irrelevant effects as that of the licence for the MB 326."

The Special committee expressed appreciation and published the letter as a document. I was told by Mr. Fisher, assistant to Ambassador Harriman, in June or July 1979 that the Italian Ambassador approached the Foreign Ministry in Lagos and wanted to know what action had been taken on that letter. There were reminders from Lagos to the Nigerian mission at the United Nations. 

I believe Italy was anxious to get a "good conduct" certificate from the Nigerian Ambassador because it was negotiating sales of aircraft to Nigeria. Looking back, I believe that if Italy did not issue false denials in connection with the licences and supplies from 1964 and announced its imposition of a strict arms embargo in 1972, perhaps the Special Committee would have commended it for its action on the arms embargo and other measures it had taken.