The South African government has confirmed that 20 of the passengers on a plane detained in Zimbabwe are South Africans. The company that owns the plane says they and others on the aircraft are security guards, but the Zimbabwe government believes that the men are mercenaries. South Africa has been trying to crack down on the country's notorious mercenary industry.
In the days since Zimbabwean authorities detained the controversial plane and arrested the 64 men aboard, there has been great confusion over who exactly they are and where they were going.
The company that owns the plane says they are security guards hired to protect mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the Zimbabwean government says they are led by a South African mercenary with ties to the now-defunct company known as Executive Outcomes, which employed mainly ex-Special Forces soldiers from the South African military.
Officials in Equatorial Guinea say the men were heading there to participate in a coup d'etat, and they have arrested several other men who were already in the country, who officials say were an advance team. There has been widespread speculation of a possible coup in Equatorial Guinea, where off-shore oil was recently discovered.
A specialist on the private military industry, Natasha Chhiba of the University of the Witwatersrand, says it is often hard to tell the difference between security firms and what are known as private military companies. Ms. Chhiba says many companies actually do both security and mercenary work, blurring the lines and making it hard for governments to regulate them.
"The lines are very blurred, and unless we actually draw a clear distinction between the two, it'll become increasingly difficult for governments to actually deal with the phenomenon of the military service industry generally," she said.
As far as South Africa is concerned, though, it may not make a difference whether the men detained in Zimbabwe are really mercenaries or just security guards. Either way, the country's anti-mercenary law requires them to get permission from the government before doing security or military work outside the country - permission they do not appear to have.
Analyst Chris Maroleng from the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria says South Africa passed its anti-mercenary law in order to keep a tighter rein on the private military industry.
"It is quite clear that the legislature intended that all South Africans should, first of all, gain prior authorization from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee because of the fear that this private military-security sector could get out of hand if it wasn't properly regulated," he said.
Mr. Maroleng says an unregulated mercenary industry could potentially destabilize other parts of Africa, as well as causing a major image problem for the South African government, which is trying to emphasize its commitment to democracy and good governance on the continent.
But Mr. Maroleng also says enforcement has been lax. Even though the law has been on the books for years, police only recently arrested the first two men to be prosecuted under it for mercenary activity.
"I think that the enforcement of this Foreign Military Assistance Act comes front and center here because it seems like there was a failure on the part of the South African government to actually monitor and enforce this act," he said.
So now, the government is cracking down. Police have arrested two men accused of recruiting people to fight in the civil war in Ivory Coast. And senior South African officials have said they may prosecute South Africans who are working as security guards in Iraq, protecting oil fields under a contract with the U.S.-led coalition.
In addition, South African officials say they are investigating the activities of the men detained in Zimbabwe, and will consider prosecuting them if and when they return home.