French-South African arms trade relations as a community of practice, 1955-1979

  • Roel Martin Van Der Velde

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This study reconstructs the French-South African arms trade in French military helicopters between 1955 and 1979, which flourished in defiance of international reprobation of Apartheid. New evidence reveals the shaping influence to policy of inter-state social relations at operational levels, leading to extended trajectories beyond the accepted historical milestones of the 1963 and 1977 UN arms embargoes.
By retracing an emerging commercial process of arms trade spanning two decades, the crystallization of elements of the French and South African defence communities is identified,constituting de facto trade policy despite their diplomatic divergence. French promotional brokering in the mid-1950s laid the unseen foundation for the professionalisation of military procurement between unlikely partners.
French interdepartmental oversight increasingly problematized propositions for weapons for use in state repression against populations in Southern Africa. Under pressure to gain military autonomy the South African Defence Force procured French aircraft, ironically leading to licensed local aircraft production under French tutelage, and adoption of French technical expertise and defence organisation. The French unilateral arms embargo against Israel in 1967caused the French-South African relationship to mature.
Following greater international and operational pressures that led to counter-revolutionary alliances in Southern Africa, alternative supply arrangements were created between French and South African defence communities, notably through trade of helicopters-in-parts. Rather than being overtaken by diplomatic withdrawal, by the mid-1970s the inter-community enterprise of arms trade was galvanized by operational-level actors, continued away from visible executive control. New primary evidence is presented to argue that the French presidential adoption of arms embargoes in 1970, 1975 and 1977 represented not a sea-change in arms trade policy, but the maturing of a parallel and covert military-industrial channel within the French ministerial constellation, directed at South Africa and the African continent.
In sum, this thesis offers new historical evidence on an extended business life cycle in French-South African trade and its correlation to, and detachment from, national policies. Moreover, the importance of practice tracing of middle-level interactions in French arms trade and defence policy connects with new debates on French involvement in Cold War regional defence arrangements in and outside its traditional African sphere of influence.
Date of AwardJun 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorTony Chafer (Supervisor), Natalya Vince (Supervisor) & Emmanuel Godin (Supervisor)

Cite this