The state of South Africa’s army: Well let’s hope no-one invades us…


By guest blogger Scott Yarham

The South African government has announced it is initiating another inquiry into the 1999 arms deal that has been subjected to constant corruption allegations. Whilst indeed these allegations of such possible corruption warrants a detailed investigation, a very critical issue that seems to fall by the wayside in light of this infamous deal, is what exactly is the capability of South Africa’s present military? Unfortunately this kind of inquiry paints a rather grim picture.

Without exaggeration, the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) is in an atrocious state of ineptitude. It seems rather paradoxical that after such a controversial arms deal seemingly aimed with the purpose of modernizing our defensive force, that SANDF is witness to both obsolete and ageing equipment, a skills shortage and more importantly- a lack of budget to match the increasing ensuing demands made upon it.

South Africa was indeed a highly militarized, war-orientated State during the Apartheid years. Following the collapse of the regime, a complete overhaul was necessary for the newly democratic state to rid itself of the image of a ‘regional bully’. This downscaling came at a time when the newly elected ANC government declared they would accept a role in fostering peace and security through military peacekeeping missions. South Africa has indeed kept to its military commitments in peace operations on the African continent. However, during the Mbeki tenure the military began to show ominous signs of critical wear and tear.

This was directly caused by it exceeding its operational capacity, massive underfunding and the critical loss of key personnel.  This led to the R 29 Billion Strategic Arms Package known as the ‘Arms Deal’.

Putting the corruption allegations that continue to haunt the Arms Deal aside, the Arms Deal provided the Military with equipment for the most improbable of missions: That being the conventional defense of the State from foreign attack.

It must be understood that under the new ‘South African Army’s Strategy 2020’, two central objectives are outlined.  The first to deter any possible adversaries, and, if need be, to encounter and defeat any such adversaries that threaten South Africa’s sovereignty. The second objective is to contribute to ‘peace keeping and stability operations’ within the Continent at large.

Peacekeeping and stabilization operations are set to predominate in the future, as it can be taken for granted that that there is no real threat from any other State.   As such, the Arms Deal has accomplished relatively nothing in bolstering South Africa’s peace-keeping mission capabilities.   An able military that is capable of augmenting South Africa’s image on the continent and the ability to execute peace operations and missions effectively is required.  Here is where we are faced with a barrage of issues. More than half of South Africa’s soldiers are unfit and untrained.  Even more alarming is the fact that just over a quarter of them are infected with HIV and therefore not allowed to go on missions outside the country.

If it were necessary, South Africa could not even rescue their peacekeeping troops in Darfur in an emergency situation for example. If Piracy moved further down the Mozambican channel, South Africa would seriously struggle to patrol it effectively. Another paramount and on-going problem also lies in the fact of trying to retain skilled military personal as many of these highly skilled young men and women are leaving the service for better paying jobs in the private sector.  The alarming situation is summed uprather robustly by Brigadier-General George Kruys of the University of Pretoria in which he stated that the South African National Defense Force is “…doing an 18-battalion job with an 11 Battalion army. That cannot be sustained….”

The funding of South Africa’s Defense is in need of immediate revision. The biggest expense of the Army is compensation which accounts for 57% of the R10 billion allocation. To afford this funds are taken from the Land Service’s Strategic Defense Account, which is meant to be used for equipment acquisition and technology development.

This directly threatens projects to upgrade the Army’s obsolete equipment but even more concerning is the consequential inability of the SANDF’s to replenish its lower ranks or reinforce its much depleted reserve forces. This problem is further exacerbated by rife financial mismanagement.  TheDepartment of Defense’s annual report shows irregular expenditure of nearly R1 Billion and many officials have failed to keep necessary records of the millions of rands that have been spent on consultants.

If this trend of mismanagement and subsequent  under budgeting continues South Africa will be unable to fulfill its military’s secondary role of peacekeeping, border control, disaster management and support of the police in fighting crime.  South Africa has placed itself in the position of a pivotal player in the promotion of peace, security and development in Africa. Whilst most certainly there are success stories such as South African troops performing well in Burundithe Central African RepublicDarfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is simply undeniable that the defense force is now running on empty.  The reality is that without an effective military, South Africa’s political and economic aspirations on the continent will be severely truncated. South Africa, with its own internal problems, can ill afford for there to be chaos in surrounding areas. South Africa is regarded as the gate way to Africa, and if it wishes to retain this title and at the same time ten to its own trading interests, it will need to ensure they are doing their bit to ensure tranquility throughout the continent.  South Africa is running the risk of becoming an empty vessel in an era where the international community is increasingly minimizing its military involvement.

It is obvious that the South African military requires review and this should be speedily undertaken.  If the present budget of only 1.3% of the GPD is not increased, and the overhauling of the military is not seen as a necessity, it will inevitably lead to them having the capability of providing only minimal defense for the sovereignty of South Africa itself and subsequently the relinquishing of its responsibilities in the continent. South Africa up until this point has managed to find a good mix of hard and soft power, if revision is not undertaken they will likely forfeit both.