Research Documentation

25 August 2008: Destroying Firearms Contributes to Peace in Southern Africa

Ben Coetzee, Senior Researcher and Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow, Arms Management Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)

The South African government has consistently stated that peace and security in the Southern African region and on the African continent must remain a top priority. This attitude toward regional security is evident in the firearm destruction policies and processes of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

The importance of disposing of surplus small arms, light weapons, ammunition and explosives is nowhere better illustrated than by the tragedy of the explosions at the Mozambican Armed Forces (FADM) ammunition storage facility in Laulane, a suburb of Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo, on 22 March 2007. This blast killed more than 100 people and injured many more.

In line with the 1997 United Nations report on small arms which recommended that states should consider the possibility of destroying surplus weapons, the SAPS was the first South African government department to develop a policy of destruction for redundant, obsolete, seized or any other firearms that could not be classified as standard. Today, the SAPS have an ongoing policy and programme to destroy obsolete and redundant arms as well as illegal or confiscated firearms. This practice, while not necessarily unique, is, in terms of its scale and duration, one of the most comprehensive undertaken on the African continent, if not internationally.

SAPS have made it clear that their policy is as focused on the destruction of obsolete and redundant arms as it is on illegal or confiscated firearms. As part of its standardization policy, the SAPS has removed firearms from its stores that are redundant (eg surplus to requirements) or obsolete (no longer in service). The SAPS has followed through on this policy to the extent that fully functional firearms are destroyed rather than sold.

Firearms that are destroyed fall into four categories:

  • Redundant;

  • Obsolete;

  • Seized / forfeited;

  • Non-standard for use by the SAPS.

Since the end of 2001, the destruction of firearms has become a regular function of the Logistics Division (now known as Supply Chain Management) of the SAPS. The reasoning behind SAPS’ approach to redundant, obsolete and confiscated firearms is based on the commitment to preventing these firearms from entering (or re-entering) the illegal market in either South Africa or other countries.

The SAPS initially destroyed the firearms and equipment by melting, but this was abandoned for the more cost-efficient method of “shredding” or “fragmentising”. The Gauteng-based company selected for the destruction was a commercial scrap yard that shreds old cars, equipment and any metal on a payment-per ton basis. It was also the same company later used by the South African National Defence Force for the destruction of their surplus and obsolete weapons.

Since August 2003, however, the destruction of firearms has been decentralised to the provinces. According to the SAPS and in terms of the provisions of the Firearms Control Act, 2000 (Act No 60 of 2000) any firearm or ammunition forfeited to the State must be destroyed by the State (the SAPS) within six months of the date of the forfeiture. To comply with the requirement alternative methods for destroying firearms had to be identified, including decentralising the destruction process to the nine provinces.The provinces are however not allowed to destroy state-owned firearms or ammunition - this remains a national competency. Provinces are allowed to destroy the following categories of firearms:

  • Unclaimed licensed firearms (Owner known);

  • Voluntarily surrendered licensed firearms;

  • Unlicensed firearms (Owner unknown);

  • Firearms forfeited to the state;

  • Homemade firearms.

Advantages of decentralised firearms destruction include:

  • It is cheaper to destroy firearms in the provinces where they are found.

  • Decentralisation of firearm destruction empowers provincial commissioners by giving them the responsibility of arranging and overseeing the provincial firearm destruction process.

  • The delay between confiscation and destruction is significantly reduced.

  • The risk of firearms being lost or stolen from SAPS secure storage facilities or during transportation to Gauteng is greatly reduced.

  • Each province can now focus the local media’s attention on the firearms destruction that took place in the province.

  • Provincial firearm destruction can focus the public’s attention on the commitment of SAPS to make the community safe and would build trust in the police.

  • More firearms are destroyed in each province than previously when firearms had to be sent to Pretoria.

  • Decentralised firearm destruction has more public exposure on a provincial level and therefore may have greater impact when it is conducted in an area where the firearms were collected.

The decentralisation of firearm destruction is a step forward in the process of making South Africa and the Southern African region safer and free from firearm-related crime.