The recent appointment, last month, of Mpumi Mpofu as the new Secretary for Defence (Sec Def) in South Africa by President Jacob Zuma came somewhat as a surprise to many within and outside the defence sector. The appointment underlines two issues. First, the participation of civilians in the decisionmaking processes of defence remains a key priority in the philosophy of the African National Congress (ANC) and in the politics of the country. Second, it demonstrates the significance of sound civil-military relations in this sector since the advent of democracy in 1994. Indeed, defence policy formulation and implementation in South Africa has been rooted in sound civil-military relations and the significance of this relationship was well articulated in the 1996 White Paper on Defence. Another positive aspect of this appointment is the continued empowerment of women within the defence sector following the appointment of a female Minister of Defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, last year.
Although the appointment of Mpumi Mpofu as Sec Def has not gone down well in some circles, it was high time that the vacancy left by the death of January Masilela in 2008 be filled. Considering that members of the Department of Defence (DOD) had temporarily occupied the position in an acting capacity over the last eighteen months, the lack of a permanent appointee was obviously affecting the smooth running of the department. A major bone of contention about her appointment as Sec Def resolves around the question as to what unique attributes would she be bringing to the DOD because of the fact that she has not been part of the defence inner circle and therefore lacks the experience to manage this unique, complex and very difficult department. On the one extreme, given the challenges facing the DOD, some commentators have seen this appointment as a serious mistake. We will have to wait and see whether such a view has any foundation or not.
On the ground though, it is an awkward time for Ms Mpofu to face up to the momentous challenges of the DOD. As the Sec Def, she will be (as provided for in legal and policy frameworks) the accounting officer to Parliament for a department that has a long history of qualified reports where only good leadership, sound financial management and good governance can correct the current situation in the department.
Managing the weapons acquisition process is another responsibility that will in all likelihood pose enormous political and technical challenges in mitigating irregularities in military procurement like the ones we have seen with the Strategic Defence Packages. She would therefore be well advised to prevent the military from engaging in illegal business. This will only be possible by strengthening oversight of the relevant processes. Her duty sheet will further include the role of primary policy advisor to the Minister on defence matters, notwithstanding Mpofu’s limited understanding of defence policy in order to render constructive advice. Related to this is the fact that the current defence policies in South Africa are outdated. Policy frameworks written in the 1990’s (the White Paper on Defence and the Defence Review) have been completely overtaken by events. Consequently, functions, mandates and roles that were not envisaged at the time, preoccupy the current defence force roles. Classic examples of mandate overreach is in the realm of peace support operations in which the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF) are deeply involved in the continent and the recent decision on the deployment of the military to the borders. All these have serious strategic and budgetary implications. The lack of a relevant defence policy does not only complicate the entire function of advice for the Sec Def to the Minister but it also presents a serious challenge with respect to accountability of the defence force to the Sec Def and respective bodies and mechanisms responsible for oversight.
Having said that, her appointment coincides with a new process for developing a defence policy that would hopefully be influenced by her own vision for the department. In addition to testing her breadth and depth of horizons in this regard, her initial success will certainly requires strong support from the SANDF, a very significant player in the civil-military relationship dynamic. Such support has arguably been lacking in recent times. Thus, if one believes reports doing the rounds that present this as one of the reasons why the department is currently in “turmoil”, one may conclude that there is a problem with civil-military relations within the DOD. The department requires a collective response by both civilians and the military to its many challenges and more so now when the defence sector has been assigned the additional responsibilities (border control) without a commensurate defence budget. In the short term, the Sec Def’s sound financial management skills will be tested to the hilt.
Labour relations are at its lowest level since democracy. The protest march in August 2009 by soldiers because of dysfunctional grievance-handling channels, the lack of accountability and questions over poor military leadership all speaks to this malaise. These are the realities of the South African defence sector. The biggest question for defence is to what extent and how soon can the newly appointed Sec Def, given on the challenges on her plate, be able to turn the department into an institution with sound financial management, where total compliance and accountability with legislative requirements is guaranteed and with effective and efficient utilization of public sector resources? It would have been helpful if she had inherited a healthy department where policies and processes were well consolidated, established and adhere to, or alternatively, if she was an insider who understood the workings of the DOD. To her credit, her experience in government as former Director General for Transport and Housing should not be ignored and might just be good enough to take her through the challenging tasks ahead. Only time will tell whether she surmounts these challenges and leverages defence out of this malaise.
Written by: Stephen van Neel – Senior Researcher Security Sector Governance Programme