A piece of popular wisdom passed around by contractors working in Iraq says, "You know you've been in Baghdad too long when hearing Afrikaans at the pool is normal."
That observation speaks to the outsize presence of South Africans in Iraq's wartime contracting boom. Security costs have soaked up a massive chunk of Iraq reconstruction funds, and former South African soldiers and police, often veterans of the country's apartheid-era border wars, have found their skills in high demand.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 South African expatriates are in Iraq, a sizeable number of whom work as armed guards. Several South African-based or -dominated security companies such as Reed, Safenet, and Omega Risk Solutions are registered with the Iraqi ministry of the interior.
But that bubble may soon burst. The South African parliament is pressing ahead with new legislation, the Prohibition of Mercenary Activity Bill, which would tighten oversight of South African citizens and residents who work in war zones.
The repercussions are already being felt. Erinys, a U.K.-based security firm that does work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, pre-emptively dropped over 100 South Africans from its payroll; other companies are waiting see how sweeping the final law may be. (Aid groups are also concerned that the bill might restrict South Africans from performing humanitarian work in other countries.)
Iraq is only one reason for the new law. The official summary of the anti-mercenary bill also states another rationale: the involvement of a number of South African citizens in an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. For most U.S. newspaper readers, the Equatorial Guinea "coup plot" may spark only the faintest glimmer of recognition, but it caused a media furor in the United Kingdom, in large part because it involved Margaret Thatcher's son.
The story in brief: In March 2004, Zimbabwean authorities detained a planeload of men from South Africa. The men claimed they were on their way to guard a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the government of Equatorial Guinea soon after announced that they were involved in a coup attempt against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo; several more men supposedly connected to the plot were arrested in Equatorial Guinea.
It all came down to control of Equatorial Guinea's oil. In his well-researched new book, The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination To Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, Economist correspondent Adam Roberts describes how the purported plotters of "assisted regime change" in Equatorial Guinea stood to win control of one of the richest patches of oil and gas in Africa.
Simon Mann, the alleged leader of the coup attempt, is still cooling his heels in a Harare prison. Roberts traces Mann's ties to Executive Outcomes, a corporate army based in South Africa that won a reputation in the mid-1990s for security work in war-torn (and resource-rich) places like Angola and Sierra Leone. Mann, as Roberts describes him, "was as likely to wear a crumpled business suit and rimless spectacles as camouflage or chest webbing. He was an early example of a new sort of mercenary, the type as familiar with company law, bank transfers and investor agreements as with the workings of a Browning pistol."
Educated at Eton and Sandhurst and heir to a brewing fortune, Mann seemed perfectly cast for the role of white mischief in Africa. (After his detention in Zimbabwe, he appealed to his backers to come through with a "splodge of wonga," English schoolboy slang for a bundle of cash.) His story was also one of colossal arrogance. In Roberts' account, Mann led plotters to believe that they could combine an arms buy in Zimbabwe, a newly acquired Boeing 727, and an exiled politician to depose Equatorial Guinea's president—and make a splodge of wonga in the process.