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South Africa’s military: A case of ‘biting off more than it can chew?’

8th December 2010

By: Creamer Media Reporter

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This discussion paper takes a critical look at the South African military in light of its transformation since the end of Apartheid and the parallel transformation in the country’s role from a continental trouble-causer to a continental peace-broker. At issue is the question of whether the South African military has the capacity to take on the responsibilities foisted on it by a Government that is both ambitious in its peace and security commitments on the continent and which is facing heightened external expectations as to its role in this regard.

 

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The South African military: Apartheid to democracy

 

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South Africa was a highly militarised, war-orientated state during the Apartheid years. During this time the Government cultivated the military both to ensure the security of the regime nationally and further afield, to protect South Africa’s borders.(2) As a result, at the dawn of democracy in 1994, the new South African Government inherited a vast military machine, renowned for its effectiveness. The military was one of the first institutions to undergo significant changes in the post-Apartheid era as to a democratic South Africa, the white, male dominated military was symbolic of many of Apartheid’s evils. Overhauling the military was also a priority due to the military’s infamous forays into Southern Africa to ‘protect the borders’ during Apartheid.

 

This resulted in post-Apartheid South Africa suffering from a crisis of reputation as a regional bully despite the transition to democracy. Indeed the continental and global expectation was that democratic South Africa would abandon its role as the regional trouble-causer and take on a more conciliatory role as a leader focused on creating a stable region by fostering peace and security.(3) As a result, post-Apartheid South Africa has tried to de-militarise its image on the continent, but at the same time it has accepted an increasing role in fostering peace and security through military peacekeeping missions. The contradiction in this is obvious and it is only now that the implications of South Africa’s military downscaling are becoming clear. The dual transformation of South Africa and its military can be best analysed by looking at the country’s three presidents - Nelson Mandela (1994-1999), Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008),(4) and Jacob Zuma (2009-present).

 

The Nelson Mandela era

 

As Esterhuyse(5) notes, the emphasis under the Mandela administration was exclusively on transforming the military. In this regard, structural, organisational and ethos changes were the order of the day and they occurred within the general spirit of a national reconciliation that characterised the Mandela administration. The negotiations for South Africa’s new military encompassed two polar viewpoints. The left-hand side of the spectrum was characterised by the demand to minimise defence spending. This viewpoint was rooted in liberal and pacifist orientations in which cooperation and consensus-building was paramount.(6) On the other end of the spectrum was the extreme conservative view in which the notion that South Africa would still need a strong defence force was touted. This view was rooted in a more realist, competitive approach to defence and security issues.

 

While in theory it was the more conventional, realist view that came to feature in the initial phases of the creation of the South African Defence Force (SANDF), in reality the SANDF was subject to a massive downscaling in terms of budget, personnel and role.(7) Little emphasis was placed on the military being operationally competent during this transition time and the Government relied on the skills and expertise of the former Apartheid defence force to keep the military going. The prerogative of transforming the military resulted in an inward-looking approach, which was based on a number of considerations. The defence budget was cut dramatically in the 1990s, thereby seriously curtailing the operation of the military both then and in the future.(8) In order to achieve the dramatic military downsizing, the South African Government turned to a private consultancy-driven organisational restructuring.(9)

 

Thus, the military was restructured along the lines of a business whereby efficiency was favoured over effectiveness, on a command-through-consensus basis. This had a number of consequences, the first of which was that logistics and administration were given separate support bases over which commanders had little control and therefore they often became victims of logistics and bureaucracy.(10) Mandela’s presidency was necessarily rather inward-looking and the focus was primarily on creating a military representative of South African society and on crafting policy documents that could successfully guide the country’s new military.

 

The Thabo Mbeki era

 

The Mbeki era proved to be a great contrast to the Mandela era. Mbeki is best known for his outward-looking foreign policy and his Africanist philosophy, which he pursued vigorously in the form of ‘African solutions to African problems’, and the ‘African renaissance’ and in his instrumental role in the conversion of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU), among others. This outward-looking approach also came to characterise the South African military. As Mbeki placed great importance on South African foreign policy in Africa, it is no surprise that the military was to become a primary instrument in this regard.(11)

 

South Africa increasingly committed its military to peace support operations on the continent during the Mbeki’s tenure. However, by this stage, due to the serious budget cuts implemented under Mandela, the military was beginning to show signs of wear and tear in the form of exceeding its operational capacity, massive underfunding and the loss of key personnel.(12) Specifically, the military was facing the issue of high HIV & AIDS infection rates, an aging soldier population, a high general-to-troop ratio, the nearly complete absence of a reserve force and a serious skills shortage.(13) With regard to underfunding, Mbeki’s increasing commitment of the military to peace operations on the continent led to the critical problem of operational over-commitment and underfunding.(14) Indeed, South Africa’s military was still using obsolete equipment from the 1970s and 1980s in the 2000s.

 

These deficiencies were multiplied by the fact that under Mbeki, the comprehensive security policy documents created in the Mandela era were not made operational in a national security strategy.(15) Mbeki therefore became the key decision-maker with regard to security matters, and increasingly, security decisions came to be made in an ad hoc fashion. This led to difficulties in the coordination, implementation and coherence of security-related initiatives and the military suffered greatly as the formation of military strategy was nearly impossible in the absence of a national security strategy.(16) Compounding the lack of clear strategic guidance was the issue of the Arms deal. In 1999 the South African Government entered into a ZAR 29 billion Strategic Arms Package known as the Arms Deal. The Arms Deal was to provide South Africa with a much-needed equipment upgrade in the form of four submarines, 30 utility helicopters, 24 hawk fighter jets, four corvettes, and 28 advanced light fighter aircraft, among others.(17) The Arms Deal witnessed extreme criticism from all quarters of South African society and the entire process has been mired in allegations of corruption up to the highest levels of Government. In this regard, numerous court cases of prominent South African politicians have taken place.

 

Aside from the corruption that mired that Arms Deal, a serious issue was the fact that the Arms Deal provided the military with equipment for the “most improbable of missions.”(18) It provided equipment useful in the conventional defence of a country (i.e. against a military attack on South Africa). The need for this type of equipment was/is a very distant possibility, as the primary focus of the South African military is on secondary missions of peace operations and support on the African continent. The type of equipment needed for these kinds of missions is distinctly different to that which the Arms Deal provided. As Sylvester and Seegers(19) note: “It would have been sensible to choose items useful to both missions and to save on the price of armaments in order to improve human resources.” In hindsight, the Arms Deal looked more like a ‘get rich quickly’ strategy by South African politicians, than an earnest attempt to re-equip the military.

 

Partly compensating for the chaos that accompanied the Arms Deal, the South African Army Vision 2020 programme was announced in 2006. This strategic guide is an attempt to transform the South African military into a professional, effective, well-equipped and well-trained force that is able to deploy quickly.(20) However, as evidenced below, the Zuma administration in 2010 is dealing with most of the same issues that plagued the military during the Mandela and Mbeki years, despite Army Vision 2020.

 

The Jacob Zuma era

 

Jacob Zuma’s young presidency has thus far been less ambitious in its foreign policy than his predecessor. Zuma has faced and continues to face numerous challenges with regard to military. In 2009, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Lindiwe Sisulu highlighted the most important challenges facing the Zuma administration as: the country’s increasing international role in peacekeeping, the deteriorating military infrastructure, the outflow of qualified personnel and the lack of up-to-date policy documents.(21) Army Vision 2020 looks increasingly like a pipe dream, as the time within which the South African military has to transform itself is rapidly depleting. As of 2010, there is a growing list of inadequacies exhibited by the military. Specifically, it is noted by Solomon(22) that at a briefing at the Saldhana military base, members of South Africa’s Parliamentary Portfolio Committee heard that:

 

• More than half of South Africa’s soldiers are medically unfit;
• Many of the riflemen and servicemen are regarded as too old for active service;
• Due to a lack of funds, the army can deploy only one operational brigade of 3000 and deploying 19 regular army companies and 23 reserve platoons is impossible;
• Military training has come to a halt. Army reservists, for instance, have not been deployed on training exercises since 1996; and
• Military equipment is in a appalling state with only 20 out of 168 Olifants and 16 out of 242 Rooikat armoured cars being deployed due to budget constraints.

 

In addition to the above reality, is the necessity for the Military Discipline Code and other relevant regulations to be stringently enforced in order to eradicate the growing levels of unruliness among South African peacekeepers. South African peacekeepers deployed throughout Africa, have been cited for acts of misconduct, including drunkenness, fighting in public places, promoting prostitution, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and murder.(23) For example, the South African military in Burundi from 2002 to 2008 recorded some 400 cases of misdemeanour and approximately 1,000 military trials were heard. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the discipline record was equally dismal, with 264 cases involving disciplinary misdemeanours and 546 military trials.(24)

 

Concluding remarks

 

The above evidence reveals that South Africa has no qualms about assuming a leadership role on the continent. In practice, however, when it comes to following through with its plans and promises, there exists a myriad of serious problems. The military is stuck in a time warp, shackled by inoperable equipment, bad management, a lack of economic and human resources, poor discipline, and a serious shortage of political foresight, among others. The reality is that without an operational and effective military, South Africa’s political and economic aspirations on the continent are severely curtailed. Kagwanja(25) notes that “in the last 15 years South Africa has created a niche for itself as a pivotal player in the promotion of peace, security and development in Africa. Its own model of political transition from Apartheid to democracy has continued to inspire and influence peace processes within Africa, and globally. But South Africa must confront the capacity constraints that face its peacemaking abilities.”

 

Jacob Zuma’s presidency has, so far, been defined by internal issues. Notable among these are dealing with increasingly militant public sector strikes, rifts in the tri-partite alliance, the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and the global financial crisis. Overhauling the military seems a rather insignificant problem on the scale of things. However, the country is running the risk of becoming an empty vessel in an era where there is a burgeoning need for the South African military on the continent. The international community is increasingly minimising its military involvement on the continent and this means that the political-military role of South Africa is likely to be continued and extended in the years to come.(26) As evidenced in this paper, South Africa has bitten off more than it can chew with regard to its military peace and security commitment on the continent. Overhauling the South African military should not only be a priority, but a necessity.

 

NOTES:

(1) Contact Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (africa.watch@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) Esterhuyse, A., Getting the Job Done: Transformation in the South African Military, Strategic Review of Southern Africa, 32(1), pp. 3, 2010.
(3) Neethling, T., South Africa’s Evolving Role in Peacekeeping: National Interest and International Responsibilities, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 6(2), pp. 12, 2003.
(4) Thabo Mbeki resigned in 2008 and Kgalema Motlanthe assumed the role of interim President from September 2008 until May 2009, when Jacob Zuma was elected as President. Due to the short nature of Motlanthe’s incumbency as interim President, this discussion paper does not include him in its analysis.
(5) Esterhuyse, A., Getting the Job Done: Transformation in the South African Military, Strategic Review of Southern Africa, 32(1), pp. 10, 2010.
(6) Ibid., pp. 5.
(7) Ibid., pp. 4-5.
(8) Ibid., pp. 6.
(9) Ibid., pp. 7.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Vines, A., South Africa’s politics of peace and security in Africa. South African Journal of International Affairs, 17(1), pp. 59, 2010.
(12) Esterhuyse, A., Getting the Job Done: Transformation in the South African Military, Strategic Review of Southern Africa, 32(1), pp. 13, 2010.
(13) Ibid., pp. 13-14.
(14) Ibid., pp. 16.
(15) Ibid., pp. 12.
(16) Ibid., pp. 12.
(17) Sylvester, J., and Seegers, A., South Africa’s strategic arms package: A critical analysis, South African Journal of Military Studies, 36(1), pp. 52-53, 2008.
(18) Ibid., pp. 72.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Solomon, H., South Africa in Africa: a case of high expectations for peace, South African Journal of International Affairs, 17(2), pp. 142, 2010.
(21) Esterhuyse, A., Getting the Job Done: Transformation in the South African Military, Strategic Review of Southern Africa, 32(1), pp. 17, 2010.
(22) Solomon, H., South Africa in Africa: a case of high expectations for peace, South African Journal of International Affairs, 17(2), pp. 142, 2010.
(23) Kagwanja, P., An encumbered regional power: The capacity gap in South Africa’s peace diplomacy, Human Sciences Research Council: Democracy and Governance Research Programme Occasional Paper 6, pp. 29, 2009.
(24) Vines, A., South Africa’s politics of peace and security in Africa, South African Journal of International Affairs, 17(1), pp. 60, 2010.
(25) Kagwanja, P., An encumbered regional power: The capacity gap in South Africa’s peace diplomacy, Human Sciences Research Council: Democracy and Governance Research Programme Occasional Paper 6, pp. 29, 2009.
(26) Neethling, T., South Africa’s Evolving Role in Peacekeeping: National Interest and International Responsibilities, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 6(2), pp. 21, 2003.

Written By: Catherine Pringle (1)
 

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