District 9 is one long sales pitch for South Africa’s arms industry

Sep 7, 2009
Andrew Rule

The cutting edge weaponry shown off in Neill Blomkamp’s film has its origins in the apartheid years

Anyone who went to see Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi film District 9 during its opening weekend in Britain will know that it's a blast from start to finish. Filmed in a real-life district of Soweto, it is shot using a compelling blend of documentary-style camera work and voiceovers, spliced with impressive CGI.

What has rendered the film such a success is not only the wild and unceasing action, but its more subtle political dimension. The allegory of apartheid is clear: the stranded aliens, who arrive in badly damaged spacecraft, have to endure a life subject to unbearable restrictions; their status is second class and there is a pervading sense of utter hopelessness at their situation.

And yet, for all Blomkamp's cutting-edge cinematic technique and social commentary, the film is ultimately disturbing for another reason - it appears at times to be an extended advertisement for the South African arms industry, which has its roots in the apartheid era on which the film is commenting.

District 9 offers an awesome showcase for South African expertise in the design and engineering of small arms and high mobility mine-resistant vehicles. The country's arms executives must be rubbing their hands in delight.

Mine-resistant vehicles are of particular interest to viewers thanks to AfghanistanThere is footage of South African assault rifles such as the Israeli Galil-inspired R5 (photographed above) as well as iconic images of automatic shotguns, reminiscent of the apartheid era.  We get to see the Vector CR-21 'bull pup' design assault rifle, while one scene shows the Armscor BXP, a nifty little pocket submachine gun.  

The film also features the first sighting in mainstream cinema of a 20mm cannon, a type of weapon more usually seen mounted underneath attack helicopters, configured in a South African design as a sniper rifle.

Naturally helicopters feature, too. Keen aficionados of Africa's biggest arms exporting nation will spot numerous scenes featuring the Oryx helicopter (built by Atlas utilising the original French SA-330 Puma).

Of particular interest to British filmgoers – given the recent publicity about soldiers dying in Afghanistan because they are not well enough protected against roadside bombs - are world-class mine-resistant vehicles which feature heavily in the movie.  

These include the highly-rated Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle and the Casspir, the white monster that features in many scenes in District 9. The Casspir is famed today for being the design upon which the US Marines built their current MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicle for use in Iraq and Afghanistan – yet it is better known in South Africa for having been deployed in the townships during apartheid.

In short, District 9 is a timely reminder that South Africa is a major global player in today's arms market – mainly thanks to apartheid, when South African expertise in military technology was driven by the restrictions brought by international sanctions and by close cooperation with Israel.  

During the Eighties, way before Prime Minister de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from jail and began the process of dismantling apartheid, South Africa became the tenth largest arms manufacturer in the world. Cutting-edge South African military hardware featured in the Iran-Iraq war - on both sides.  

All the indications are that South Africa's worldwide market share has only increased in recent years. The last independently verified figures date from 1997. They indicated that sales totalled $263 million to 63 countries.

Today, South African hardware is also very much in evidence across the continent of Africa. Though they are widely acknowledged to be subject to a robust governance regime, the South African arms companies Armscor and Denel have not been able to escape allegations linked to recent arms transactions to countries such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

District 9 provides a salutary reminder that while Africa is a largely unstable continent, it is home to a regional power that happens to be one of the  world's most sophisticated arms manufacturers. And it is very much open for business.

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