But the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute observed in a new study that a significant portion of the arms Pretoria has sold to other states in the conflict-plagued continent "were vulnerable to abuse."
The report's author, Pieter Wezeman, said that some arms were shipped to Rwanda government forces before the genocide there in 1994 in which majority Hutu tribesmen massacred some 850,000 Tutsis.
Official South African data show that in 2000-09 arms were delivered to several states engaged in conflict, including Chad in 2008-09, Rwanda in 2004-09, Sudan in 2007-08 and Uganda in 2002-09.
"Assessing the impact these deliveries may have had on conflicts in these recipient countries is not possible because it remains unclear what type of equipment was delivered to which end-user and if and how it was used," Wezeman commented.
Pretoria doesn't usually comment on its arms exports but, based on what government data are available, South Africa seems to be willing to supply most sub-Saharan states, except Zimbabwe and those under U.N. arms embargo.
South Africa's high-tech defense industry is the most advanced on the continent. The only other continental state that comes close to its technological level is Egypt, long a military heavyweight in the Arab world.
When minority white rule ended in 1993 and the African National Congress took power, South Africa's arms industry was flourishing.
"Some people within the new ANC-led government saw arms exports as a potential tool for foreign policy and the industry as an essential attribute to a strong sovereign state," said Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI.
"They placed an emphasis on arms exports within Africa, in particular to states in southern Africa, an area perceived as South Africa's natural sphere of influence.
"Politicians and government officials hoped that arms sales within Africa would provide political leverage and they promoted arms sales as a key to establishing regional security cooperation," Wezeman observed.
"They argued that African states would benefit from buying South African arms because it would lessen their dependence on non-African sources.
"However, countries in Africa proved apprehensive of strengthening South African dominance in the region and have been hesitant about procuring arms from South Africa."
The downsizing of South Africa's military forces in the post-apartheid era forced the arms industry, once heavily bankrolled by the state, particularly in research and development, to depend on exports for survival.
According to industry statistics, exports accounted for 40-50 percent of the defense industry's turnover in 2003-07.
Government figures show that defense exports for that period were worth $5 billion. But of that, less than 5 percent, or $241 million, was accounted for by sub-Saharan African states.
Denel, the state-owned flagship of South Africa's defense sector and the largest arms manufacturer in Africa, reported in 2009 that of its overall export revenue of $165.8 million, only $6.7 million came from sales to other African states.
SIPRI noted that South Africa was the 17th largest arms exporter in the world in 2004-08 with reported defense sales of $2.5 billion to 96 countries.
The arms industry grew largely because South Africa was forced to manufacture its own military equipment after the apartheid regime was hit by U.N. economic sanctions in the 1960s. The United States added its weight in 1986.
South Africa's arms industry mushroomed, aided by Israel. The South Africans produced combat aircraft, armor, artillery and electronic systems for its military fighting black African adversaries.
But after minority white rule ended in 1994, the arms industry went into decline and it has never really recovered.
In 1993, there were 122 companies earning more than half their revenue from defense. In 2007, there were 49 and, unlike in the apartheid era, they depended on exports to survive.
Apart from Denel, the major players include Land Systems South Africa, a subsidiary of Britain's BAE Systems, one of the world's leading defense conglomerates. Others are Thales Defense Systems, Saab Grintek Defense & Technologies, Reutech and Aerosud, a civil and military aviation specialist.
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