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How civil society blocked an arms shipment for Zimbabwe

In April 2008, a Chinese ship carrying arms destined for Zimbabwe’s Defence Force attempted to offload those weapons in Durban’s harbour, so that they might be transported across South African territory to land-locked Zimbabwe. South African civil society, alerted to the existence of the arms and anxious that they might be used to suppress democratic forces in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s controversial elections, undertook a number of actions to stop delivery. Among them, they obtained a court order preventing the offloading and transfer of the arms cargo and the ship then fled Durban in an attempt to find another southern African port.

But civil society in Mozambique, Namibia and Angola also demonstrated against any offload and transfer. While the ship was eventually allowed to dock in Luanda it was not allowed to discharge the arms and set off home to China with its unwanted cargo still on board. Zimbabwe made the unlikely claim that it had received the shipment. Either way, it made no difference. The campaign was deemed to be a resounding success. The issue became a rallying point for co-ordinated, region-wide civil society mobilisation. Factors such as the strategic role of media, effective use of regional partnerships and international co-operation and that the ship represented a tangible rallying point were critical to success. And the broader geo-political context — that the region’s leaders were seen to be prepared to actively facilitate Zimbabwe’s lawlessness and were not maintaining a principled stance of non-intervention — helped to fuel public outrage and contribute to the impact of the campaign.




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