On Friday November 10, a small number of activists from various groups around South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, formed a people’s blockade in front of the main entrance to Paramount Group, Africa’s largest arms trader. They did this, effectively blocking the entrance, to call attention to Paramount Group’s involvement in several dubious arms deals, including with dictatorships and military regimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Ecuador. This blockade was part of a transnational response to the International Call to Stop Arming Israel by Workers in Palestine and Palestinian trade unions. On the same day, activists in the UK shut down an arms factory in Kent, and workers in Canada shut down four arms factories across the country. Groups continue to prevent the flow of weapons to Israel as part of a growing international campaign.
Several journalists, including myself, covered the South African blockade. Many of us received strange communications from Paramount in response. After posting photos and videos from the blockade on my personal Instagram, Paramount’s IG account commented on my personal post. They alleged “fake news” and, predictably, accused the activists of hate speech and antisemitism, a line that they repeated in a press release and a story published by DefenceWeb.
Paramount’s comment also disregards that several anti-Zionist Jews participated in planning and carrying out the blockade. These Jewish activists released statements emphasizing that anti-Zionism cannot be conflated with antisemitism and that in fact it was their Jewish faith that called them to take action against Paramount’s warmongering. Instead, as these activists emphasized, Paramount Group and its Executive Chairman, Ivor Ichikowitz’s manipulation of the language of antisemitism to silence anti-Zionist Jews is itself deeply antisemitic. Paramount’s dubious activities globally—from their involvement in oil extraction and insurgency in northern Mozambique, to their sales to Saudi Arabian military forces throughout the Saudi attacks on Yemen—are all examples of morally repugnant activity that compelled these activists to fight back.
A reporter from South Africa’s Daily Maverick who reached out to Paramount for comment on the action, was asked in an emailed response from Paramount’s Director of Group Communications, Nico de Klerk, to divulge the names of the activists involved. De Klerk wrote, “Could you please confirm who the authors of this statement are? And are you also speaking or interviewing them to verify who they are? You would appreciate that we must be given the opportunity to know who are making these allegations and who we are responding to.” As a communications director, De Klerk is certainly aware of journalistic protocols that protect the anonymity of our sources. Asking a reporter to share this information is ethically dubious at best, and at worst potentially retaliatory.
This is not Paramount’s first rodeo in stifling negative press. Earlier this year, the company filed a formal suit against the Mail and Guardian, following the publication of an article, “The arms dealer behind the African mission to Ukraine,” which described Ichikowitz and Paramount Group’s involvement in dubious weaponry deals with Russian, Ugandan, Congolese, and other actors. While the Deputy Press Ombud dismissed most of the charges levied by Paramount, the Mail and Guardian issued an apology stating that “they did not present him with the specifics of the story prior to publication”—an unreasonable expectation for an investigative piece. Notwithstanding Paramount’s protests, nothing in the meat of the M&G article was disputed.
The Mail and Guardian article further stated:
It is not known whether Paramount Group is selling weapons to either side in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, although at least one piece of military equipment produced by Paramount—a Marauder-type armored vehicle—has been spotted with Russian forces on the front line, according to news website DefenceWeb.
Paramount continues to hide behind similar shadowy transactions as the assault on Palestine rages. Journalists from News24/City Press reached out to Paramount for comment on the November 10 blockade. In response, Paramount denied providing arms to Israel in the current conflict, though the activists were careful to argue that the arms trader did not necessarily provide arms, but certainly held a relationship to Israeli Apartheid given the location of their Tel Aviv office. Moreover, De Klerk alleged that Paramount never collaborated with Israel’s largest defense contractor, Elbit Technologies, on weaponry used in Palestine, yet Paramount’s overall collaboration with Elbit in producing and equipping armored vehicles that are used in conflict zones is clearly documented.
In response to another journalist’s inquiry to Paramount about its response to the blockade, the company stated that all purchases and sales were done in compliance with South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC). But as University of Johannesburg academic and BDS-SA researcher Patrick Bond emphasized, Paramount’s compliance with the NCACC is not enough. Bond put it bluntly that “the NCACC is a joke.” It cannot sufficiently track the trade of arms and weaponry once they leave South African soil. Paramount may trade weaponry through their office in the UAE, but the NCACC does not track if they later end up in Gaza. And as both Bond and the M&G article established “at least one piece of military equipment produced by Paramount – a Marauder-type armored vehicle – has been spotted with Russian forces on the front line,” in contravention of the NCACC and South African law.
All of this begs the question: if an organization is on the right side of history, why is it so concerned about its image in the press? And if Paramount has nothing to hide, why is it so bent on scrubbing press coverage? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that there’s more to the story. It is rare to hear of a company involved in the arms trade being a goodie. But Paramount Group has made egregious choices with regard to the moral and ethical implications of the actors with whom it works. While Paramount may not send arms directly to Israel, on its website the company makes clear that it maintains an office in Tel Aviv which is required to register with and pay taxes to the Israeli state. The company’s founder, Ichikowitz, has demonstrably fundraised for the IDF alongside his fundraising efforts for the African National Congress, as established on the Ichikowitz Family Fund and Tefillin Bank of Africa’s website (now scrubbed, but visible here). And even if Ichikovitz has stepped away from Paramount, as the company alleges (despite his LinkedIn stating the opposite), Paramount retains Shane Cohen, former Lieutenant Colonel with the Israeli Army, as the Vice President for Europe. These close links to the Israeli state are clear.
Paramount may claim that they do not manufacture arms, and only deal in the trade of weapons such as armored vehicles and jets. But armored vehicles, jets, and drones are also instruments of death—and here as well, Paramount’s connections to Israel are transparent. While Paramount confusingly alleges no connections to Elbit Technologies (the equivalent to the US weapons giant, Lockheed Martin), the Israel Defense website has publicly documented Paramount’s deal with Elbit. The armored vehicles that Paramount creates in South Africa—from the Mbombe to the Marauder—are outfitted with Elbit digital technology. These South African-Israeli weaponry collaborations have been used in South America.
Instead of cutting ties with Israel, Paramount has resorted to targeting journalists, academics, and activists for reporting the truth. Paramount could choose to close its office in Israel and cut its ties to Elbit and other Israeli companies, but it has not done so.
In this time of genocide in Gaza and attacks by Israel on civilians across Palestine, we are called to stand up against war and all those who profit from it. This includes arms traders, armored vehicle builders, and the entirety of the military-industrial complex. Instead of arguing that Paramount and other military companies create jobs—jobs where workers are dehumanized into building machinery that murders other workers—Paramount should stand on the right side of history and cease its activities. All of this is part of what it means to call for a ceasefire, now. We cannot accept any more murders, or allow the activity of any groups that refuse to denounce the war crimes of the Israeli army.
The South African government has acted morally by publicly censuring Israel and participating in the diplomatic boycott. But it can do more. It should echo the call by anti-war, pro-ceasefire, and pro-Palestine liberation activists to drop all dealings between South Africa and the Paramount Group. The government must close the Paramount office in Midrand, and demand the closure of Paramount’s office in Tel Aviv, alongside South Africa expelling the Israeli ambassador. Standing up for Palestinian liberation means a full boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of the Israeli state. It means a rejection of all racist and manipulative rhetoric that assumes that Jewish people must stand behind the Israeli state’s war crimes. It means refusing intimidation from companies who claim antisemitism to protect their profit. And in a perfect world, it means ending the arms trade industry entirely.
As the Paramount blockade activists stated, condemning Israeli aggression and participating in the diplomatic boycott is the right first step. Shutting down all entities that collaborate with the Israeli regime must be next. South Africa overturned an Apartheid regime once. By standing firm against the warmongering of arms traders such as Paramount, we can do it again.