An ammunition factory in a residential area of one million people

Terry Crawford-Browne’s* report on Denel, focuses on the impact of the armaments industry on workers, communties and the environment, and the campaign to change this.

The South African armaments industry is no exception to the general pattern that armaments and military operations combine to create an environmental catastrophe.

Swartklip Products

The Swartklip Products was established in 1948 as Rondons Manufacturing, and was acquired by the state in 1971. At the time it was far from population centres, but the apartheid ‘removals’ led to the ‘coloured’ population living on one side in Mitchell’s Plain and the ‘black’ population living on the other side in Khayelitsha. Today, one million people live close to Swartklip.

Swartklip is a division of Denel, controlled by the Department of Public Enterprises. It employs about 800 of Denel’s total 10 500 employees. Swartklip considers itself a world leader in the research, design and production of pyrotechnics and explosive devices, mainly for export to destinations in Africa, the Middle East, South America, the Far East and Europe. During apartheid research experiments for chemical and biological warfare were conducted by Dr Wouter Basson, at Swartklip.

Hazardous Waste Disposal

Waste at Swartklip is disposed of in the open “burning grounds” and at Swartklip beach. Few tests have probably been conducted on the health and environmental consequences of this waste disposal. Swartklip is probably contaminated with pollutants linked to the ammunition factories.

Under ‘national security’, the armaments industry was seemingly beyond the planning and environmental jurisdiction of local councils. In June 2002, NGOs objected to a proposal to build an incinerator at Swartklip, within 500 meters of shacks in Khayelitsha. Denel has referred the matter to the Department of Environmental Affairs in an effort to override environmental objections to the incinerator.

Research in the United States confirmed that communities living close to military and armaments facilities are affected by cancers and diseases resulting from exposure to toxic materials. The impact of military pollution on health and the environment is not always visible, immediate or direct, and often presents itself years later.

Silencing Workers

It is apparently common for armaments industry workers to refuse to discuss working conditions while they are employed. Under Apartheid workers were silenced by the National Key Points Act that equated disclosure of information about the armaments industry with treason. In post-apartheid South Africa, the current National Conventional Arms Control (NCAC) Bill passed by Parliament and signed into law in March 2003, similarly threatens the media and citizens with up to 25 years’ imprisonment for disclosure of classified information “without the written authority of a competent authority”, that is, the Chair of the NCACC.

In addition, workers who complain about the lack of safety procedures are apparently threatened with being fired and replaced by the huge numbers of unemployed.

Occupational Health and Safety

Swartklip boasts an exceptional safety record, achieving a National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA) five star rating for six consecutive years since 1995. Swartklip claims that only five employees have suffered fatal accidents since 1948. But according to trade unionists: “Swartklip workers don’t live very long. Many have lost their hands, their legs, their eyesight, their hearing, their mental faculties, and many develop heart disease, arthritis and cancers. They are discharged with compensation of R1 000 (US$100), and told to take responsibility for their own medical expenses.” It is estimated that about 900 workers are affected. Two examples serve to illustrate the dangers faced by Swartklip workers.

Mr Apollis Fischer is a former truck driver at Swartklip. He is now blind and severely mentally handicapped, and also suffers kidney problems. His wife, Anne, told parliamentarians he used to deliver teargas, hand grenades, birdshot, 22 long rifles, 6.85 bullets, gunpowder, thunder flashes, tracer bullets, red and white phosphorous made at Swartklip to places such as Paarden Eiland and Firgrove Station.

My husband got a cough from January to January from the dust of the lorries. When he got home at night from work, he would be sneezing and coughing. His eyes would be itching, so that I had to put Eyegene in his eyes. During the day, when he was on the lorries where there was no water nearby to wash his hands, when his eyes itched, he just rubbed his eyes with his hands that were full of gunpowder dust. That is why he lost the sight of his left eye. He has 20 percent sight in his right eye. But the Swartklip bosses never worry about the workers.

Another example is that of Mrs. Daniels. Mrs Daniels was employed to weigh the chemical components for ammunition produced at Swartklip. She was 24 years old when the chemicals exploded and she lost both her hands. She was so grateful to have survived that she never pressed for adequate financial compensation to ameliorate her disability, and was never assisted to do so by Swartklip management. Mrs Renata Robinson died in March 2001 in a similar explosion at the same work station.

Heart disease

Former employees report an abnormal occurrence of heart disease amongst ex Swartklip workers. A possible explanation is the use of nitroglycerine in the manufacture of ammunition. Nitroglycerine is also used in the treatment of angina and the human body apparently adjusts rapidly to its presence, and soon becomes dependent. The onset of heart diseases is said to occur about one year after workers are no longer exposed to nitroglycerine.

Beryllium exposure

Beryllium is a silver-grey metal, lighter than aluminium, but 40% more rigid than steel and, in an alloy, six times stronger than copper. Beryllium-copper alloys withstand high temperatures, are extraordinarily hard, resistant to corrosion, do not spark and are nonmagnetic. Beryllium is an excellent electrical and thermal conductor. The brittleness of beryllium has limited its industrial use, and increases the hazards associated with its toxicity. Given poor ventilation, small particles and chips of insoluble beryllium break-off during machining and spread through the air in the work area. Inhalation of these tiny particles can lead to chronic beryllium disease. There is reason to be concerned about the exposure of workers and residents to beryllium both because of its use in manufacture and their proximity to hazardous wastes, including the open burning. Beryllium disease is apparently similar to tuberculosis, and can occur quickly or after many years of exposure to beryllium. Although primarily a lung disease, beryllium can affect other organs, such as the lymph nodes, skin, spleen, liver, kidneys and heart.


The recent explosion on November 13, 2002 in the ammunition plant at Swartklip, has again alerted communities to the health and environmental dangers associated with explosives and ammunition. Fortunately, the explosion occurred during the morning tea break and only one person was seriously injured. Production has ceased, and about 400 workers from the three shifts have been booked-off pending reconstruction. The cause of the explosion is being investigated internally by Denel, the Department of Labour and the South African Police Services.

Workers’ Committee

The ex Swartklip Workers Committee has approximately 600 members. The mandate from the Committee is to obtain a thorough and independent air, water and soil contamination tests at Swartklip, and that the present workforce should undergo medical tests. These tests must be undertaken at Denel’s expense by the Departments of Environmental Affairs, Health, Labour and Water, in conjunction with Cape Town City Council and progressive academics from the surrounding universities. The Committee works closely with the Economists Allied for Arms Reduction (ECAAR).

Broader support needed

Sixteen former Swartklip (and Somchem) employees addressed members of Parliament in October 2002. Five workers, including Mrs Fischer and Mrs Daniels, addressed the parliamentarians. (A parliamentary inspection of Swartklip was scheduled for October 31, 2002 but was later cancelled). The Anti-War Coalition is now urging government to prohibit the sale of armaments, including those manufactured at Swartklip, to Britain and the US. Some Cape Town city councillors are presently investigating the City council’s jurisdiction over Swartklip in such matters. Environmentalists and medical academics are being consulted, and the Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha Development Forums are also involved. There is still the need for NGOs and civil society to make urgent representations to local government for thorough and independent on-site testing for soil, water and air contamination at Swartklip, and for medical audits of workers.

Converting the armaments industry

Environmentalists have already been told that Swartklip may have to close down, with the consequent loss of jobs, should the construction of an incinerator be opposed. The Workers’ Committee is aware that employment at Swartklip, (including many family members), is a “bread and butter issue” in an area of high unemployment. Such threats cannot be taken lightly. However, international experience indicates that conversion of the armaments industry – if properly managed – can create both more and better-paying jobs. The armaments industry is a capital rather than a labour intensive industry, and is an exceptionally poor creator of jobs given the financial investments involved. Another factor to consider is that despite massive government support, Denel continues to lose money and posted a loss of R363m during 2001/2002 on public assets of R4 billion. But the overriding factor to consider is the location of Swartklip in a residential area, bearing in mind the disaster of AECI in Macassar, Bhopal in India and ammunition plants in China.

The extent of contamination at Swartklip will have to be determined by independent tests and reconstruction of the damaged ammunition plant building should be halted until such tests are evaluated and appropriate decisions are taken. Swartklip is a vast area which, if sensitively redeveloped, could transform the present socio- economic impoverishment of both Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha.

The Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution is unambiguous regarding the environment and overrides militarist claims of “national security.” Section 24 declares that everyone has the right –

(a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and

(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other meas- ures that –

(i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation

(ii) promote conservation; and

(iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

* Terry Crawford-Browne is the chair of ECONOMISTS ALLIED FOR ARMS REDUCTION (SA). For more information: e-mail:

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