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South Africa’s Underspending on Defence - A Final Reality Check


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After much public controversy, the report of the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission was presented to the South African Cabinet at the end of last year. The Commission, which was appointed by the South African Ministry of Defence at the end of 2009, in the aftermath of a labour strike by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), found that South Africa’s military faces serious challenges because of a chronic budget shortfall. It warned that combat readiness and operational capability are severely impaired and that this situation would lead not only to the tarnishing of South Africa’s international credibility, but could also prompt other parties into activities inimical to the country’s national security.

In a briefing to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence in November 2010, the SANDF stressed the seriousness of the situation to the Standing Commission. It demonstrated that during the 2009/10 financial year, South African Air Force (SAAF) operations were underfunded by nearly R132 million. As a consequence, a lack of capital equipment and insufficiently trained air and ground crew made it impossible for the SAAF to carry out planned flying activity. During a briefing to parliament in March 2010 by the South African Minister of Defence it was estimated that the Air Force was underfunded by nearly R1.2 billion for the 2010/11 financial year, which will result in the further deterioration of the Air Force’s operational capabilities.


The South African Army also faces various challenges to maintain operational readiness. Unserviceable and irreparable capital equipment, some of which has an operational age of well over the 30 years, are only part of the problem. The biggest expense to the Army is employees’ compensation, which accounted for 57% of its R10 billion allocation. This amount increased to 67% following salary increases for lower ranks in the wake of the strike. The deficit was made up for by taking R2.1 billion from the Land Service’s Strategic Defence Account, which is meant to be used for equipment acquisition and technology development. In essence this threatens projects to replace the Army’s obsolete equipment and even South Africa’s defence industry, as production contracts are cancelled. The shortfall is also beginning to have a negative impact on future personnel intakes, meaning that the SANDF will be unable to replenish its lower ranks or reinforce its much depleted reserve forces.

The point is that South Africa is not spending enough on defence, and it would be irresponsible for politicians to suggest otherwise. The Internal Report suggested that an extensive and properly funded defence review must be undertaken so as to align what is expected from the SANDF to its budget allocation. The report also called for the defence vote to be increased from the current 1.3 % of GDP to 2% to ensure that the SANDF is capable of conducting both its primary and secondary roles as constituted by the South African White Paper on Defence.


The absence of an updated defence review does not however exonerate politicians from providing the SANDF with enough resources seeing that they are constantly tasking the military with more duties and tasks that is beyond their capabilities or mandated responsibility.

It is time for South Africans to realise that the military is not a machine that can be switched off in peacetime and restarted during crisis situations. It must be sufficiently maintained and funded for it to remain effective. The Department of Finance, which allocates resources to the SANDF may have an understanding of macroeconomics, but seems ignorant of defence economics and what a modern military is supposed to do. If the current trend of defence underbudgeting continues, the SANDF will be unable to fulfill even its secondary roles of peacekeeping/enforcement, border control, airspace control, disaster management, and support to the police in fighting crime.

If politicians see the military as an extension of South Africa’s responsibility towards Africa and the country’s foreign policy, they need to equip and fund it properly so that it can conduct its tasks with pride and honour. If not, they should instruct the military to restructure so that it can operate on a budget of only 1.3% of GDP. This will probably lead to the SANDF being able of providing only a minimal defence for South Africa and a relinquishing of its international responsibilities.


Written by Anton Kruger, Consultant, Peace Missions Programme (PMP), ISS Pretoria


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