The trials and travails of the alleged Equatorial Guinea coup plotters due back from Zimbabwe this week has failed to deter thousands of South Africans, with police and military experience, from seeking their fortunes as guns for hire in global hot spots.
Iraq is by far the most lucrative cash cow for these soldiers of fortune, with at least 30 percent of the billions of dollars the US Department of Defence spends on Iraq every month going to "private military contractors".
Recruitment agencies pay Klaus Weber, a former West German spy turned risk consultant, to do background checks on South Africans recruited as "security guards in the Middle East".
|Iraq is by far the most lucrative cash cow for these soldiers of fortune|
Weber claims that between 1 500 and 2 500 South Africans are doing military-related work in Iraq.
He says the total number of private military contractors performing security tasks in the country - from riding shotgun on aid convoys to actual combat in counterinsurgency operations - stands "at about 20 000 from 30 different countries", meaning that the ratio of South Africans in the "mercenary ranks" could be as high as one in eight.
Weber said the highest-earning South African "mercenaries" in Iraq included intelligence officers, counter-insurgency specialists, helicopter pilots and combat surgeons who earned up to $25 000 (about R160 000) a month.
South Africans in Iraq have quipped that, while Afrikaans is frequently heard on the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, Kirkuk and Tikrit, they have encountered relatively few elite ex-soldiers from such units as the 44 Parachute Regiment and 32 Battalion, which was disbanded in 1993.
Instead, they confirmed that most South Africans in Iraq were platpote, regular grunts, often with a Koevoet counterinsurgency or police background, who performed simple tasks such as guarding oil fields and loading trucks.
|Helicopter pilots and combat surgeons earn up to $25 000|
Such South Africans were sought after by the civilian companies contracted by the US-led coalition forces in Iraq because they were far cheaper than their British or US counterparts, and had experience in bush-war counterinsurgency.
Black South African "mercenaries" were in demand because they could blend in better with the population of Sudanese Arabs in southern Iraq, Weber said.
Even the white South Africans were said to have a better reputation than their British counterparts for adapting to local cultural norms.
Weber's claims were confirmed by a senior official working in Iraq, who asked not to be identified, but the official put the number of South African soldiers of fortune in Iraq at "5 000 to 10 000, with less than five percent involved in actual combat activities".
It could be argued that contracts signed by most South Africans serving in Iraq are legitimate, having been issued by the British and US governments, but combat activities fall foul of South Africa's Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act of 1998.
That legislation was enacted in the wake of Executive Outcomes soldiers being roped into a messy failed coup attempt in Papua New Guinea.
No one has yet been jailed over the act but it has been used to secure R75 000 fines each against two accomplices of the 62 "mercenaries" due to be released by Zimbabwe this week - Louwrens Horn and Harry Carelse - a R200 000 fine against commercial pilot Crause Steyl and a R3-million fine against Sir Mark Thatcher.
With the Zimbabwean authorities having been able to prove nothing but minor aviation, immigration and weapons charges against the 62, South African prosecutors will have to look to the evidence proffered by Horn and Carelse linking the pair to the Equatorial Guinean coup plot.
But the National Conventional Arms Control Committee - which rules what companies and individuals may render military aid to foreign powers - took a year after the coalition-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to put that country off-limits. By then, thousands of South Africans living here and abroad had already signed up for such work in Iraq.
Many are attracted by the easy money which enables them to pay off their home bonds within six months. Many others are desperately poor, their apartheid backgrounds having rendered them virtually "unemployable".
But even the revelation that a "mercenary recruitment centre" raided by the police in Cape Town last year was a scam has failed to deter wannabe soldiers of fortune.
The doorway to working in Iraq is typically a South African daily newspaper advert, along the lines of one that reads: "Do you have experience in the military or police? If you do, you can be assured that there is a lucrative career for you as a security officer in the Middle East for several reputable organisations.
"Applicants must have an honourable discharge, between the ages of 30 and 40, have operational experience, be able to work as part of a team, must be available on short notice and must be willing to contract for at least six months.
"Earning potential is between $100k and $135k per annum." This compares well to Weber's $60 000-per-annum estimate for the pay of bottom-rung recruits.
The man who placed the ad did not want to be named but confirmed that the final destination of such recruits was Iraq. "I can arrange to have you come with us, so you can see the work we do is not mercenary," he said.
Weber said most recruits would first be screened and then, if they passed muster, be asked to attend an interview in cities such as London, Windhoek and Harare.
If selected, they would be flown first to Dubai from where they would make their way to Baghdad.
Despite the lure of easy money, the families of these "mercenaries" suffer the anxiety of knowing their menfolk are working in a war zone, daily running the risk of death or imprisonment.
Late yesterday, Christina Antonio (20) was still waiting in Pomfret, in the far north of North West province, for the release from Zimbabwe's Chikurubi Prison of her uncle, 32 Battalion veteran Kirenga Paulo.
"We are worried because they [the Zimbabwean authorities] said they would be released, but we are still waiting. It's confusing."
Her words were echoed by those of Marge Payne, the wife of flight engineer Ken Payne, who said she was exhausted by the "hype" over promises to release the men - promises that had so far not materialised.
"They [the Zimbabwean government] told our lawyer they would send the men how and when they want to and that it's not his business how they do it. I believe nothing until I see it."
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