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COVID-19: South Africa’s neglected military faces ‘mission impossible’

Soldiers escort a homeless woman to a gathering point in the Johannesburg CBD during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. Michele Spatari/AFP-GettyImages

South Africa’s military has been deployed in communities across the country to support efforts to contain the COVID-19 disease, and help save the lives of citizens.

In terms of the mission to combat COVID-19, the defence force will, among other duties, protect quarantine sites, deliver food and others essential supplies to mass storage facilities, help police restrict people’s movements, conduct road blocks and to curtail unrest.

But can it fulfil these duties? The South African National Defence Force has suffered from terrible neglect over the past 25 years of democracy. The result is that in this time of crisis, it may not be able to muster enough troops to maintain the lockdown.

Members of the South African Medical Health Services have also been deployed to provide health support services. But, only 2820 soldiers have been deployed, according to official reports.

The army only has 14 infantry battalions, consisting of about 810 men and women each - including 34 officers. And many soldiers are simply not deployable, due to poor health and other manpower constraints, or other commitments like border control.

In its current condition, the defence force cannot meet the demands placed on it to fight the coronavirus, in addition to serving on peacekeeping missions, and an array of other tasks, from disaster relief, to bolstering internal safety and security and safeguarding the borders.

Another big concern is that soldiers are not trained in riot control, nor do they have the appropriate equipment for this. This could result in them using excessive force against civilians in line with their training, in response to violence.

Why the army is in a parlous state

The South African National Defence Force’s poor capacity to deliver on its mandate of safeguarding the republic against foreign aggression go beyond purely budgetary constraints. For the past 25 years’ there has been little to no organisational transformation to reconfigure the force structure and design to meet current realities.

Force structure describes how military personnel, their weapons and equipment are organised for military operations, missions and tasks. Force design relates to the shape, structure and purpose to meet operational needs.

Instead, the military has been absorbed in the processes political transformation, where the focus has been almost exclusively on ensuring that it is representative of broader society. The government has also been preoccupied with getting the military to be subservient to civil control.

I describe these processes, and the impact they are having in my new book, South Africa’s post-apartheid Military: Lost in Transition and Transformation.

Both processes are flawed, and have negatively affected the military’s efficiency, effectiveness and professionalism.

Where military generals function out of misplaced political loyalty, this inevitably results in a breakdown in the chain of command.

Secondly, in terms of civil oversight, where non-military people lack knowledge of military matters, this affects the quality of debates on defence matters. It also imperils policy formulation and advice in terms of the military’s strategic direction.

Another problem has been the effect of cultural and human resource transformation. This focuses on addressing historical inequality, such as racial and gender discrimination, and labour practices. Here there have been numerous challenges, such as dealing with the impact of HIV and Aids and military unions.

There are large numbers of military personnel who are not health-compliant. This affects all generic personnel processes, including training, deployment, and maintenance and support functions.

The military has been facing numerous other human resource challenges. It has major skills shortages, imbalances in terms of personnel structures, and is unable to rejuvenate its forces. This has led to an aging force and rank stagnation, which means that people cannot be promoted. The reserves, which are being called up under the National Disaster Management Act, are in a similar state. With a strength of 20 000 and an average age of 43yrs, this back-up has limited capacity.

Risky choice

These political, cultural and human resource issues have distracted the military from focusing on the pressing issues of operational and organisational reform.

The 2015 Defence Review, maps out the future security landscape and priority tasks of the military. Priority tasks include to defend and safeguard South Africa, promote peace and security, and perform developmental tasks. But these ideals are unrealistic in light of current budgetary constraints.

It will take great ingenuity to restructure the country’s armed forces to meet even the most key obligations, including countering external security threats against the country and peacekeeping in Africa.

External threats are both traditional and non-traditional, including regional and local conflicts; violent political, religious extremism as well as terrorism, and high levels of international crime.

Internally, threats include illegal immigration, crime syndicates, gansterism, and having to deal with medical crises such as Covid-19.

What’s needed

The first thing that’s needed to transform the military is decisive, strong leadership from politicians and military leaders. There needs to be a clear articulation of what capabilities they want going forward.

Priority tasks will increasingly be those affecting the citizens of South Africa directly, in cooperation with the police. These include deterring and preventing conflict, safeguarding borders, protecting critical infrastructure, and promoting safety and security. It’d be impossible for the defence force to perform these tasks effectively, and still contribute to peace and stability on the continent, within current budgetary and organisational constraints.

The reality is that South African citizens and politicians become interested in the affairs of the military only when there’s a crisis. This leaves it to function in a vacuum.

The COVID-19 pandemic might just show how weak the country’s military is. It remains to be seen if it will be up to the task if the frustrations caused by the lockdown were to erupt into violent conflict. How well it helps the police contain and suppress this violence will be a telling sign of the country’s state of defence.

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