Four days after it slipped through the net of South African authorities in Durban harbour, the high sea wanderings of what has been dubbed China's "ship of shame" in South Africa appeared Tuesday to be nearing an end. ( dpa )
Faced with mounting international criticism for dispatching a shipment of arms to the violent regime of autocratic Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, China on Tuesday announced that the ship had been recalled by the shipping company.
In an apparent victory for the unions and the activists that chased the vessel from southern African shores, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Tuesday the carrier had recalled the An Yue Jiang because it could not complete its delivery.
The news came as the US State Department announced it had asked China - which Mugabe calls Zimbabwe's "all weather friend" - to withdraw the shipment and halt weapons sales to Mugabe.
"If it's true (ship recall) it's the best news ever," said Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip, one of the initiators of the first protest in the South African port of Durban last week, which spread throughout the region as the ship fished about for a port willing to accept the cargo.
The An Yue Jiang is carrying six containers of bullets for AK-47 assault rifles, mortars and grenade launchers for landlocked Zimbabwe, where reports of violence by Mugabe party faithful against civilians in the wake of last month's elections are pouring in.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) claims 10 of its members have been killed in revenge attacks since the March 29 presidential poll, in which MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has claimed victory over Mugabe but Mugabe's Zanu-PF party says was too close to call.
"Those weapons were not going to be used on mosquitos but clearly meant to butcher innocent civilians," the MDC warned Tuesday.
Dockworkers in Durban started the boycott by refusing to off-load the cargo, saying to do so, given the situation in Zimbabwe, would be "grossly irresponsible."
Bishop Phillip and activist Paddy Kearney also rowed in with an application for a court order to bar the shipment crossing South Africa to landlocked Zimbabwe.
Durban High Court granted the order on Friday but the ship lifted anchor and set sail before the order could be served.
The ship's next destination was the subject of furious speculation, with many pointing to Mozambique as an obvious port of call because its ports are the nearest to Zimbabwe.
Whether it did make a quick dash for the nearby port of Maputo is unknown. Mozambique's government said the ship never tried to dock there but the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) that called the Durban boycott claims the government rejected it after dockworkers in Maputo vowed a similar protest.
When the ship reappeared on activists' radars it was headed west around the coast towards one of Zimbabwe and China's biggest allies in Africa: Angola.
By Monday, South Africa's trade union federation was calling for an international boycott and the ship was said to be planning a pit stop in Namibia, where activists were also threatening a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, a German state bank, KfW, had also joined the fray claiming it had also obtained a court order in Durban to seize the cargo to enforce repayment of a loan to Zimbabwe's state-owned Iron & Steel Company, but that the ship had also ducked that order.
For Phillip the protest brings back memories of the campaign for sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa.
"I kept feeling this felt like what happened during apartheid. We were mobilizing we were trying to organize a boycott."
The boycott had also served as a rallying point for South Africans dismayed at their government's laissez-faire approach to Zimbabwe.
President Thabo Mbeki has been heavily criticized for declaring that there is no "crisis" in Zimbabwe. His government also granted the An Yue Jiang a permit for the conveyance of the weapons across South Africa.
"Again the government is guilty, at best, of a weak-kneed stance on Zimbabwe, and at worst, actively supporting Mugabe and his thugs' diabolical behaviour," said Business Day newspaper.
Even if the ship hauls it cargo back to China, some fear hardline generals in Mugabe's regime might try to obtain Chinese weapons by other, less noticeable means. South Africa's Die Burger newspaper Tuesday quoted an unnamed source as saying the generals were planning to fly in more sophisticated weapons.