The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is in a “critical state of decline” and is largely incapable of carrying out its constitutional duties.
This sobering fact is set out in the Defence Review, South Africa’s new defence policy finalised in March 2014. The Review noted that the army couldn’t afford its main operating systems, was unable to meet standing defence commitments, lacked critical mobility and was “too poorly equipped and funded to execute the widening spectrum of tasks to the desired level”. It concluded that:
left unchecked, and at present funding levels, (the decline of the SANDF) will severely compromise and further fragment South Africa’s defence capability.
Three years later the situation remains the same.
The South African constitution says that the SANDF’s primary function is to protect the country’s territorial integrity, provide border security and to support peacemaking operations in Africa.
Over the past two decades the SANDF has been sent to peacekeeping missions in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. There was also the questionable deployment to the Central African Republic in 2013 where 15 soldiers lost their lives. In addition, the navy has been involved in protecting South Africa’s territorial waters and maritime interests as well as contributing to the fight against piracy.
Over the years thousands of soldiers have also been deployed to protect the country’s borders. And the army has taken part in the crime fighting Operation Fiela.
The army’s dire situation has arisen because the government hasn’t provided sufficient funds for the SANDF over the past two decades.
In 1994 the spending on defence was around 3% of the GDP. This declined steadily to 1.54% of the GDP in 2004–5 and around 1.2% of the GDP since 2014. The minister of defence believes that a defence budget of about 2% of the GDP – in line with countries such as Turkey, France and United Kingdom – would help it rebuild its capacity.
The cost of the SANDF taking part in peace missions isn’t an issue as these are covered by funding from the National Treasury and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. The challenge is to fund “day-to-day maintenance” including equipment, infrastructure, training, administration and force preparation.
In particular, the SANDF’s infrastructure is falling apart. In March 2014, only 38% of the army’s facilities and only half of the soldiers’ living quarters were in decent conditions. Some of the bases are in such a poor state that they are “unsuitable for human habitation”.
The Defence Review stressed the need for immediate intervention to stop the critical decline and
create a firm foundation to … develop a sustainable defence capability appropriate to South Africa’s international status, strategic posture and its inescapable continental leadership role.
In addition, it warned that “even with an immediate intervention, it could take at least five years to arrest the decline and another five years to develop a limited and sustainable defence capability.”
During the intervening three years the government has shown no urgency to help the SANDF develop into a capable force. There’s been no significant increase in funding for the army since 2014.
The writers of the Defence Review operated under instructions from then Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to “pursue a long-term framework”. This was based on the assumption the government would provide the necessary funds to implement the review’s recommendations. Since then Sisulu has been moved to another portfolio and the army’s budget has not gone up.
Today the SANDF “doesn’t have the money or manpower to step up security of the country’s porous borders.” According to the Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula
there are huge expectations from us but budget cuts remain a problem.
According to the latest budget figures, spending on Defence and State Security will amount to R54bn in 2017-18, up from R52bn in 2016. In 2018-19, spending is set to increase to R56bn and R60bn in 2019-20.
But these increases are not enough to arrest the decline, let alone rebuild the capacity of the SANDF and implement the review’s recommendations.
Recently, President Jacob Zuma, surprised to hear about the army’s financial woes, encouraged Mapisa-Nqakula to bring the issue up at a cabinet meeting.
This raises the question whether he even read the 341-page review document.
Neglect likely to continue
Lacklustre economic growth means that no significant budget increases are likely in the foreseeable future. In a challenging environment, the government and the Department of Defence have two options: find extra money or scale down. Both options are set out in the review:
There must be either a greater budget allocation or, a significantly scaled-down level of ambition and commitment which is aligned to the current budget allocation. In short, there are two strategic options available for government: budget must be determined by policy or, budget must drive policy.‘
Defence analyst John Stupart argues that South Africa doesn’t have a plan B. At the same time, the policy that exists is “simply unachievable”.
But something will have to change, and quickly. Stupart argues that South Africa’s strategic needs could be met by a smaller, well trained and highly capable defence force equipped with modern weapons and tactical know-how. The alternative is that a large, over-staffed and badly trained military slides “into decline and, ultimately, obsolescence”.