In a magnificent display of working-class solidarity, dockworkers in Durban, South Africa, refused to unload 77 tonnes of Chinese weapons bound for Zimbabwe.
The An Yue Jiang left China just days after polls closed in Zimbabwe’s presidential elections with a cargo of three million rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 1500 rocket-propelled grenades and more than 3000 mortar rounds. Chinese officials claim the cargo is “perfectly normal trade” — true enough as each year China exports more than $1 billion dollars of weapons in exchange for cash, raw materials and influence. The Stalinist bureaucracy already uses its massive arms industry to prop up regimes in Burma and Sudan. Now it will be used to bolster the Mugabe regime.
China has scrapped import tariffs on 190 goods from 28 of the least developed African countries and expanded trade and aid links, investing in construction, food and oil projects in addition to weapons sales. These trade and diplomatic relations are used to build Chinese great-power influence in Africa.
That China is prepared to arm Mugabe in his efforts to suppress democracy in Zimbabwe says much about its reactionary agenda.
When the Durban dock workers — organised by the Transport and Allied Workers Union — learned of the shipment, they knew exactly what the weapons would be used for. Sprite Zungu, a member of the SATAWU, spoke to Solidarity when the ship was approaching port: “At the moment, nothing is moving here — the workers are still outside. The union has had many meetings with workers’ federations, COSATU [the South African equivalent of the TUC] and the courts. We are holding these meetings to put the position of our union. That position is that our members will not handle containers which are full of weapons that will be used against the Zimbabwean people.
“Our intention is to force the ship to return to China. We realised yesterday [17 April] that this ship was full of weapons — it was in the newspapers and on television. We knew that the Zimbabweans had just had their elections, we knew that the results had not been released. It was clear to us that these weapons would be used to put down the democratic opposition. The port authorities are part of the government. They could try to force the unloading of the ship, there are rumours this could happen. They have released a statement saying that the South African government has nothing to do with the action. There’s a trade agreement between Zimbabwe and South Africa. They want to keep this agreement. But we don’t care what the government says. We will maintain our position as a union. We will not unload the weapons.”
The dockers’ action ultimately forced the ship to leave South African waters after COSATU called for permission to be refused and the Durban High Court barred transport of the cargo. The International Transport Federation followed suit, mobilising affiliated unions to put pressure on the Mozambique and Angolan governments. Both have now refused permission for the ship to dock. The Chinese government is now likely to recall the ship to avoid continuing the controversy.
Whilst the action in Durban has called a halt to the transport of weapons by sea, a second order of more sophisticated weaponry from Shenzhen — one of China’s central hi-tech manufacturing regions — is due to be flown into Zimbabwe. Sources on the ‘Zimbabwe Situation’ website (www.zimbabwesituation.com) claim the decision to transport these weapons by air was made by Zimbabwean military officials anxious to avoid disruption to their campaign of intimidation in the run-up to an anticipated second round in the presidential elections.