By Rohan Gunaratna (British Chevening Scholar)
Author, Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis and National Security
SOSL is not responsible for the contents of this page.
South Africa permitted the LTTE to establish a propaganda, fund raising, training, procurement and shipping network in February 1996. Similarly to the Indian response, embarassed South African officials continue to deny the existance of political and military training bases in South Africa.
South Africa battled hard to refute both domestic press reports and allegations by Sri Lanka that hard-liners of the South African National Congress is providing military hardware, finance and political support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The response of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, South Africa House in London, and the South African High Commission in New Delhi was that "as a policy" South Africa does not provide support to "liberation movements." South Africa refused to label the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and remove Sri Lanka from the list of countruies to which South Africa has banned arms sales.
Although Sri Lankan officials tried to hide their disappointment, South African diplomats from New Delhi accredited to Colombo towed the policy advocated by hardline ANC activists in the South African government. For fear of earning the wrath of the ANC hardliners, the visiting diplomats did not persue a political but an economic agenda from double taxation to trade. When High Commissioner Jerry Matsila met with President Kumaratunge for three hours, he advanced the LTTE agenda of persuading Colombo to agree to the good offices of South Africa.
Colombo has persistantly misperceived South Africa's intentions vis-a-vis the LTTE and vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. It began in early 1997 when President Mandela visited London and at a reception for foreign envoys, he met with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner S.K. Wickramasinghe. President Mandela shook hands with High Commissioner Wickramasinghe and asked him: "How is President Chandrika?" High Commissioner Wickramasinghe perceiving that Mandela was well disposed towards Sri Lanka dampened all government efforts to confront South Africa with evidence of LTTE activity in South Africa. Mandela government was fully supportive of the Sri Lankan government. High Commissioner Wickramasinghe argued that the LTTE had no presence in South Africa.
With such charm, Sri Lankan policy and decisionmakers could have never beleived that South Africa was playing a dual role. High Commissioner Wickramasinghe's flawed assessment was nothing new - Sri Lankan political, diplomatic and intelligence leaders had made similar assessments when India was providing sanctuary, training, finance and weapons to some 20,000 Sri Lankan militants in 33 camps from October 1983 to June 1987. Fifty years after independence Sri Lankan decisionmaking process was flawed because successive governments had failed to build the institutions and processes for collective thinking. Sri Lanka lacked political,security and foreign policy think tanks for formulating immediate and long range policy.
The camps provided accommodation and facilities to train recruits in guerrilla warfare. Initially, all the trainers were Sri Lankan Tamils but gradually South Africans joined in. Each camp had between 20 to 10 trainers many of whom rotated. For instance, one camp had 18 trainers. Of these, 4 trainers instructed the recruits on the history of "Eelam Tamils." After rigorous physical training (PT) by 6 trainers, the recruits were provided basic military training by 2 trainers. The training included armed and unarmed combat. There was instruction on how to evade surveillance, counter-intelligence, explosives use and communication. The other trainers - Sri Lankan and South African - were silent and observed the performance of the recruits. The training period for each batch was three months, comparable to the LTTE training provided in India to some Indian Tamil groups such as the Tamil National Retrieval Army and the basic training provided to LTTE recruits in Sri Lanka. Upon graduation, the best were transported to Sri Lanka. They were inducted to Sri Lanka via India by boat and via Maldives by air. Reports of some being transferred to Sri Lanka by LTTE ships, frequenting South African ports, is currently under investigation.
The South African agency, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), became aware of the training camps within a year of their operation but the influence of ANC hard-liners within the NIA prevented NIA from advising the South African government to close down the camps. But, the NIA inducted an agent who provided them details of the training and trainers. One of the major factors which led South Africa to adopt such a position was the effectiveness of LTTE propaganda and the susceptibility of the ANC government towards supporting violent movements. In fact, the confidential South African Foreign Ministry assessments criticises Sri Lankan military atrocities and not the LTTE atrocities. Among the South African diplomats who supported the LTTE quite openly was Jacky Selebi, the former South African Ambassador in Geneva and Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission and since currently Director General, Foreign Affairs Department, Pretoria. On a visit to Geneva, he met with representatives of LTTE fronts on August 10, 1998 and pledged his support towards their cause.
Post-1994 relations witnessed the LTTE activists travelling to South Africa including Tharmalingam Shanmugam Kumaran alias Kumaran Pathmanathan, the head of the LTTE International Network. Close links between South African Tamils and the LTTE were forged through the International Secretariat in London. The LTTE links with the Mandela government was consolidated in late 1994 when LTTE activists won over a few ANC hard-liners. The LTTE also established contacts with South African missions in Canberra, New Delhi and London. The LTTE continues to feed South African missions with propaganda, particularly the UK mission.
After the ANC government came to office, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was the first Sri Lankan dignitary to visit South Africa. ANC hard-liners in the Mandela government did not wish to displease the LTTE. Around the same period Minister Kadirgamar visited South Africa in early 1996, a 14 member LTTE delegation was received by President Mandela in his office. Three delegates were women. Except one delegate who joined the team from South Africa, the others came from Sri Lanka via India on airline tickets issued by the South African government. Their program was organised by the ANC with the assistance of the South African High Commission in New Delhi. Research Analysis Wing, India's agency for gathering foreign intelligence and conducting overseas operations, had failed to monitor the ANC-LTTE link. Indian Intelligence Bureau had failed to monitor the use of India as a transit point. This high level meeting was followed by several meetings between ANC and LTTE representatives in India. Among the ANC officials was a South African foreign ministry official. The South African mission in India, particularly the Office of the Deputy High Commissioner, was involved with these discussions.
Before Minister Kadirgamar left South Africa he received an official briefing from a White South African intelligence official. Although Sri Lanka through the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) supported the ANC, Sri Lanka and the Apartheid regime maintained intelligence liaison. This was a necessity because Sri Lankan groups were training both in Lebanon and Syria, particularly in the Bekha valley with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the ANC. Senior Sri Lankan intelligence officials visited South Africa and South Africans assisted Sri Lanka to develop its war-fighting and intelligence gathering capability. The intelligence official explained to Minister Kadirgamar that the LTTE was disseminating propaganda and raising funds through four front organisations and that there were about 100 Sri Lankan Tamil families in South Africa.
The post-Mandela NIA was NIA and ANC intelligence wing combined. Many ANC intelligence types entertained the view that South Africa had an obligation to assist their former allies - meaning the groups that had assisted them such as the PLO and LTTE and the countries that had stood by them such as Iran and Libya. Therefore, the ANC hard-liners in the NIA were annoyed that a Sri Lankan government minister was briefed of LTTE activities. Within a few days, the intelligence official was transferred out. This exacerbated the tension between the NIA old guard and the new additions.
A message from Mandela to be publicised at an LTTE organised conference in Australia was obtained by the LTTE in June 1996. The Peace with Justice International Conference, co-organised by the Australian Human Rights Foundation and the Australasian Federation of Tamils, two LTTE fronts, was attended by Lawrence Tilagar, the then head of the LTTE International Secretariat and Pravin Gordhan, an influential South African supportive of the LTTE. The LTTE had obtained the message through Gordhan, a former ANC leader and currently a parliamentarian representing the ANC. Some Sri Lankan Diaspora organisations overseas wrote to President Mandela protesting for issuing a message to the LTTE.
Gordhan, the go-between who secured the message in the form of a letter from Mandela to the "Human Rights conference" was an ANC ideologue rather than a terrorist. His ANC background has made Gordhan a powerful figure in Mandela's South Africa. He served as co-chairperson of the Transitional Executive Committee and was engaged in the drafting of the newly completed Constitution of South Africa. Some South African colleagues of Gordhan believe that he had been duped by the LTTE into believing that the LTTE struggle against Colombo is similar to the erstwhile conflict between White and Black South Africans. Even some of the better educated South Africans, particularly those of Indian Tamil origin, view the LTTE struggle through the lens of Apartheid. Although there is no evidence to indicate that Gordhan has accepted money from the LTTE for his services, there is evidence to show that the LTTE has paid for him to travel to Australia in mid-1996.
The LTTE network in South Africa is both a covert and an overt network. At a political level, they mobilise Tamil support in South Africa for demonstrations, rallies, seminars and lobbying. For instance on June 4, 1996 when Sri Lanka's national airline Air Lanka flew into South Africa, 100 Tamils demonstrated in Durban. The LTTE placards said "Sri Lanka go home, Stop fighting before flying." To satisfy the Indian community, the placards also called for South Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Durban, a strong Indian Tamil community was the first stop of the flight. Air Lanka flew both to Durban and Johannesburg. Through their ANC colleagues, the LTTE monitored the deliberations of the Sri Lankan delegation engaged in promoting the airline. The delegation had arrived in South Africa on May 28, 1996. LTTE also infiltrated Travel Directions (Pty) the Air Lanka General Sales Agent in South Africa. For economic reasons, Air Lanka stopped flying to South Africa from April 1, 1997. Sri Lanka continued to make efforts to influence South Africa in her favour. For instance, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Dr G.L. Pieris met with his counterpart in South Africa early 1997. But, without a Sri Lankan mission in South Africa, Colombo could not advance its foreign policy goals because the LTTE propaganda machinery was already operational.
As a direct outcome of propaganda, South Africa has banned the sale of weapons to Sri Lanka. Despite efforts by the Government of Sri Lanka to explain its position to Ibrahim Ibrahim, Chair, Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs and Kader Asmal, Chair, Portfolio Committee on Defence, South Africa has not revoked its decision. This explains the influence of the LTTE, which they had painstakingly built in South Africa over the years. The LTTE continues to lobby and receive support from some of the 11 South African Indian Parliamentarians. The South African Tamil parliamentarians were more vulnerable towards supporting LTTE interests in South Africa.
Sri Lanka established a mission in late 1997, specifically after the government realised the need for stronger ties between Pretoria and Colombo. South Africa will be a major challenge to Sri Lankan High Commissioner Gamini Munasinghe, a respected diplomat, posted to South Africa in March 1998.
Based on fresh information, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar formulated a dual strategy both to win over President Mandela and to confront South Africa with information of LTTE activity. Minister Kadirgamar proposed inviting President Mandela as chief guest to the 50th anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka's independence day. Mandela was under pressure from the Tamil lobby not to accept the invitation. South African Tamil activists, at the invitation of LTTE had written to Mandela stating: "Mrs. Kumaranatunga is scheming to use the upcoming 50th anniversary of British departure from Ceylon to invite world leaders and proclaim it is a tacit acceptance of her policies of ethnic decimation. The Tamils have nothing to celebrate. We are sure that you have courage and wisdom to tell Mrs. Kumaranatunga that a person like you who has passed through the baptism of fire in the fight for racial justice to take part in a charade to celebrate 50 years of ethnic iniquity is sacrilegious. Please tell her to 'Let the Tamil people go'." President Mandela declined the invitation.
While LTTE activists attempted to lobby Graca Machel, the then companion of President Mandela during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh in October 1997, President Kumaratunge approached President Mandela and informed the South African leader about LTTE activities in South Africa. The 80 year old President Mandela, who had much respect for Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike and remembering the support of NAM for ANC, promised an immediate investigation. President Mandela and his officials were somewhat embarrassed by the manner in which President Kumaratunge had accosted him on a sensitive issue but it produced results. Within 24 hours, NIA reported to President Mandela the extent of the LTTE organisation and operations in South Africa. Based on the NIA report President Mandela ordered the dismantling of the camps. On October 29, 1997, at the crack of dawn South African troops assisted by NIA operatives simultaneously raided the three LTTE camps in South Africa. The camps were in Laudium near Pretoria, Lenasia near Johannesburg and New Castle near KwaZulu-Natal. The camps in the outskirts of Laudium and Lenasia were between built up areas. Investigations by the South African authorities revealed that 24 hours before the camps were raided the LTTE had been informed by a high-level source that the Government of South Africa had made a decision to raid the LTTE camps.
Due to political and electoral pressure, President Mandela did not request the South African criminal-justice system either to proscribe the LTTE or their front prganisations. The support network remained intact offering the prospect of revival. Today, the LTTE front organisations for disseminating propaganda and fund raising continues to operate in South Africa. Among the most active LTTE fronts are: People Against Sri Lankan Oppression (PASLO), Gauteng with branches throughout South Africa; Movement Against Sri Lankan Oppression (MASLO), Cape Town and Durban; Dravidians for Peace and Justice (DPJ), Gauteng an off-shoot of PASLO; Tamil Eelam Support Movement (TESM), Durban; Peace for Sri Lanka Support Movement (PSLSM) in Pretoria, an alliance of several groups; and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO). LTTE's principal fund raising organisation - the TRO - acts as a central conduit for channelling money out of South Africa. The latest organisation the LTTE established was PSLSM in Pretoria in March-April 1998. To wield their influence, LTTE also attempted to infiltrate other Tamil organisations in South Africa. They are the Natal Tamil Federation, South African Tamil Federation, the Tamil Federation of Gauteng and the World Saiva Council of Chatsworth.
In addition to disseminating propaganda and raising funds, these fronts organise public events and engage in lobbying. For instance on July 4, 1998, the TESM staged a "play of conscience" called "God is Silent." The play centred around the Sri Lankan conflict was held in Regional Hall, Arena Park, was organised in support of the LTTE. The advertisement said: "Thousands of Tamils are being massacred and raped in Sri Lanka. Don't just sympathise with the cause. Do something about it."
For financial or ideological reasons, there are about 20 influential South African Tamils who promote the interests of the LTTE. Among the South African activists, who have come to the attention of the South African authorities are Dr. P. Lingam, V. Pillai, Tommy (Tony) M. Padotan, M. Peddy, M.T. Pillay, T.D. Pillay, Kisten Chinappan, Y. Chetty, Ned Pillai and Kumbesan Sandrasegaran. To keep an eye on LTTE activism, particularly LTTE political and military activists who visit South Africa from time to time, the NIA has stepped up its surveillance on these organisations.
Former UN expert Elizabeth Bennette, with the prestigious South African think tank, the Institute of Strategic Studies in Johannesburg is openly critical of LTTE's role in recruiting and deploying child combatants. As the current head of the institute's project on Children in Armed Conflict and formerly with the National Children's Rights Committee in South Africa, she is working towards an ad hoc tribunal that will prosecute both governments and rebels who "commit war crimes against children." She is specifically examining the use of children under 15 in warfare by Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Kony of the Lord's liberation Army in Southern Sudan; and the LTTE.
Because of President Mandela's aversion to violence, the fronts of the LTTE have adopted a technique to portray themselves as peace organisations. The LTTE and their fronts regularly called South Africa to promote negotiations.
President Mandela, subjected to the influence of LTTE propaganda, called for UN intervention in Sri Lanka at the UN General Assembly. President Kumaratunga's response at the UN was a direct rebuttal to President Mandela's comments. On her return, President Kumaratunge had a three hour discussion with Jerry Matsila, the South African envoy on October 13. Matsila, as instructed from South Africa, pleaded ignorance of LTTE procurement and shipping from South Africa. Matsila also denied the presence of LTTE training camps on South African soil. Matsila provided the standard South African official response that South Africa was investigating the LTTE. Since the LTTE run camps were raided in South Africa in October 1997, this has been the standard response.
President Mandela's stature as a towering statesman has suffered by the continuous exposure of South Africa harbouring violent groups and South Africa's relations with states supporting terrorism. To please a political constituency or to accommodate the request of a political or a personal ally and permit or turn a blind eye and tolerate the presence of terrorist infrastructure is a high crime against a friendly state. Like India has lost its moral right to talk about terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan spawning terrorism in India, the unprecedented wave of crime, corruption and provision of facilities for groups engaged in terrorism elsewhere is eroding the image of post-Mandela's free South Africa. If the LTTE threat is not controlled, South African security is likely to suffer the same way Indian security suffered. The short, mid and long term consequences of permitting the LTTE to operate in South Africa, will not be very different from India permitting Tamil militants to operate both in north and south India. It is natural that there will be a resurgence of Tamil nationalism; proliferation of weapons; flow of narcotics; corruption; and organised crime in South Africa.
In addition to the impact on Sri Lanka and South Africa, there will be other implications of permitting the LTTE to operate in South Africa. South Africa will become a meeting point for existing and emerging groups to exchange intelligence, conduct joint procurement and even plan common strategies. This will impact on international security. The LTTE is also bound to expand its scope of operation further into Africa from its central base in South Africa. Already LTTE has cells in Reunion, Madagascar, Fiji, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is question of time that from South Africa, the LTTE network will expand into the rest of Africa.
There is evidence to indicate that in Mandela's South Africa, not only are the Whites feeling isolated but also the Indians. In context, the UK-based Sri Lankan researcher Dushmantha Ranetunge makes an astute observation: "Sri Lankan Tamils and South African Tamils are both minorities with influence far above their ethnic representation. Are the South African Tamils fearful that their influence may be trimmed by the African majority as the Sri Lankan Tamils were by the Sinhalese? Is that why we are hearing of South African Tamil Tigers? Is this an alliance between two insecure minorities?" Ranetunge argues that the South African Tamils seems to be feeling isolated and "South African Tamil Tigers" may be a pre-emptive strike at the black majority, fearing a Sinhala style cutting down to size of Tamils in South Africa."
On October 28, 1998, President Mandela placated the Indian South Africans by saying not to regard themselves as a minority but to become part of the majority in order to play a major role in the democratic transformation of the country. "Move away from the sidelines and come to the centre, and become a part of the majority", the President said. In the light of these developments the future of South Africa is uncertain. South African leaders of the 1990s - like their Indian counterparts in the 1980s - have under-estimated the LTTE, a pan-Tamil organisation. Towards, pan-Tamil nationalism, the LTTE has specially established a newspaper Theni Seide which is distributed free in South Africa.
The LTTE can be effectively denied access to South Africa only if the government decides to legally designate the LTTE as an illegal organisation and pass legislation to proscribe the LTTE front organisations and companies operating in South Africa. It is highly unlikely that South Africa will take such measures because the LTTE influence has significantly grown since 1994 and the Indian Tamil lobby is formidable in South Africa.
Foreign Minister Kadirgamar is likely to visit South Africa within this month to raise the issue of LTTE training camps, procurement, shipping, propaganda and fund raising. In the past, questions about the presence of LTTE in South Africa has been discussed between the two presidents and the two foreign ministers. They have had an impact on the LTTE organisation and operations in South Africa but not to dent the LTTE permanently. Will the forthcoming visit of Minister Kadirgamar create a significant impact because the South African media itself has raised the issue? Today, it is a daunting challenge for the Sri Lankan political leaders, intelligence community and foreign service to advance Sri Lankan interests in South Africa.