The memo you weren’t supposed to see

arms dealRemember Thabo Mbeki? Remember what a train-wreck his presidency was? The AIDS denialism? Rubber-stamping Mugabe’s rigged elections? Anything ringing a bell?

I don’t blame you if you don’t remember. Jacob Zuma comes in for a lot of stick but nobody can deny he’s got magical powers: after almost seven years in power, he’s largely erased our memories of what life was like before he giggled his way into our dreams.

But I’m sure there’s one Mbeki-era cock-up you do remember: the Arms Deal. That little moment when Nelson Mandela’s government decided we needed billions of rands worth of weapons to fight nobody instead of billions of rands worth of jobs, houses and flushing toilets; and Mbeki made sure it happened.

A few years ago I wrote a book, The Unauthorised History of South Africa (certified 10% entirely true) and I revealed for the first time the memo circulated around Cabinet, outlining the Arms Deal. I can now reveal those details to you…


By 1999, as Mbeki took office, the time had come for the Arms Deal to be finalised, and the following top secret memo was circulated inside government. [Note: This is the only surviving copy of the memo. It was supposed to be shredded along with the rest, but the job of carrying this copy down the corridor to the shredder was subcontracted to Ubuntu Shredding & Construction (owned by a deputy minister’s wife), which went bankrupt halfway down the corridor.]



Saab fighter jets – henceforth to be known as ‘Ubuntuceptors’

REASON FOR PURCHASE: So we can look totally hot, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun. But obviously not in a gay way.

COST: R2 billion. (Tell public they cost R200 million each. Most voters can’t count past 500 anyway. Shot, Education Dept!)

CAPACITY: We currently have no pilots trained to fly our Ubuntuceptors, but this isn’t a problem as the nearest regional threats do not have air forces as kick-ass as ours. In fact, according to Military Intelligence and our Ubuntu-Eye satellite, Zimbabwe’s air force currently consists of three crop-dusters and two weather balloons. Namibia’s air force (one zeppelin, circa 1938) is currently on deployment carpet-bombing baby seals. Mozambique’s air force is currently grounded, having chosen Betamax instead of VHS as its basic targeting system.


Note: some defeatist counterrevolutionaries have pointed out that the United States has more firepower in one of the toilets on one of its aircraft carriers than the whole of our air force, and could swat us like a bug if it wanted to. Please ignore this, even if it is true. Also, please ignore the recent study by a defence expert who suggested that our Ubuntuceptors might be more effective as a deterrent if we put them in giant catapults and fired them at the enemy. This is very hurtful, even if it is true.

CONCLUSION: Our new Ubuntuceptors are an awesome purchase, and we will totally rule the skies, as long as the skies don’t also contain any American, Russian, British, French, Israeli, Chinese or German planes, or large birds, or flocks of small birds, or clouds.

German submarines – henceforth to be known as ‘U-boats’, which is short for ‘Ubuntuboats’

REASON FOR PURCHASE: Patrolling the fisheries.

NOTE: We are not totally sure what ‘patrolling the fisheries’ means, given that the whole point of submarines is to sink ships, and as far as we know, it is a war crime to torpedo small rowing boats full of poachers. However, we might squeeze off a torpedo at a particularly aggressive shark or giant squid, just to see what happens. Basically we are going to go all Hunt For Red October, except with less nuclear war.

COST: A lot. We’ll let you know once the arms dealers’ middle-men give us a clearer idea of how many unmarked dollar bills we have to put in brown paper bags for them we’ve established market value.

CAPACITY: Super high. The SA Navy is the best in the world at looking after submarines in dry dock. We estimate that we will be able to have at least one submarine on bricks by 2004, where crews will train for emergency situations, e.g. what do to when penguins nest in the torpedo tubes or pelicans cover the periscope lens with poop. We are also confident that by 2015, all new submarines will be at peak dive readiness, thanks to large holes rusted in their sides that will allow them to sink the moment they are put in the sea.

CONCLUSION: We’re going to take a bit of stick about these, but they’re totally worth it, even if we just end up stuffing them full of Arms Deal paperwork and sinking them.

South Africans were suspicious. It seemed odd to them that South Africa would be spending billions on weapons when the biggest threats to their country was the HIV/Aids pandemic and the imploding education system. Would the submarines wear condoms on their periscopes to raise awareness? The navy had no comment. Perhaps the Ubuntuceptors would be deployed to drop laser-guided textbooks down the chimneys of rural schools? Again, no: SADTU vowed to prevent this from happening by using schoolchildren as human shields.

South Africans wanted answers to their questions. Mostly, because of outcomes-based education, their questions were “What is five plus six?” and “Is rain made of God’s tears?”, but a few of them wanted answers about the Arms Deal. However, the government had bigger concerns.

The night before, the Red Phone in Thabo Mbeki’s bedroom had rung, startling Mbeki out of a dream in which he was riding a unicorn bareback through a field of Aids denialists. Disoriented and groping for his beard wax, he answered. Over the crackly line he could hear the sound of laughing and shouting, and someone singing ‘I’m A Barbie Girl’ on a karaoke machine. He recognised the voice: it was his old friend Robert Mugabe. Someone shouted, ‘Comrade President Field Marshall Liberation Ninja! Your call to Pretoria has gone through!’ The singing stopped and Mugabe wheezed warm greetings down the phone. His news was exciting: he had just won the Zimbabwean general election with fifty-five percent of the votes. This was particularly exciting because the general election was only taking place the following week.


If you want to know what happened next, please redeploy your credit card from your wallet and storm the barricades of economic freedom for local writers! The Unauthorised History of South Africa is available as a Kindle here and as a paperback here.



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