The announcement on Wednesday 14 July that 25 000 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will be deployed to help counter rioting and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng is a welcome development and one that should finally curb the unrest plaguing those provinces.
The initial deployment of 2 500 troops was woefully inadequate considering that literally thousands of looters were roaming cities like Durban, and the South African Police Service was completely overstretched and outnumbered. Residents were forced to band together to patrol neighbourhoods and shops to protect them from looters as the SAPS was overwhelmed.
Authorities said 5 000 troops were already on the streets since Wednesday, with more on the way. Vehicles and aircraft are also being deployed, especially to Durban, which has borne the brunt of the crisis.
The decision to send an additional 25 000 members of the SANDF to respond was taken after President Cyril Ramaphosa said it did not matter how much the deployment cost as the cost in lives and to property would be far greater.
The ultimate cost of deploying tens of thousands of troops remains to be seen, but it will also cut into the other tasks the SANDF is meant to be fulfilling. Calling up the entire reserve force and every available soldier means peacetime tasks like border safeguarding, search and rescue etc. may be affected. It appears the SANDF will not be deploying to Mozambique to help the Southern African Development Community (SADC) combat Islamist militants in the northern Cabo Delgado province. The deployment was supposed to start on 15 July, but it may be just as well that Mozambique has not yet signed the status of forces agreement that would allow this to happen.
With smoke still hanging in the air and looters still active, the SANDF’s latest deployment is a chance for it to once again show the people of South Africa that it is a force for good, and a necessary and useful one.
It is also a chance for politicians, and the public, to see that an adequately funded and well-equipped SANDF is necessary, and is not just there for wartime.
For years, experts (and the Department of Defence) have been warning of sustained cuts to the SANDF and the loss of capabilities this entails. If cuts continue, the SANDF may not be able to respond to crises like the one that has erupted over the last week.
The South African defence budget for 2021/22 is just .86% of GDP, down from .97%, causing experts to caution that the reduction will have far-reaching implications for the SANDF. Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula believes the SANDF is moved from being a mandate driven defence force to a funding driven defence force, meaning the SANDF is now driven by what its funding allows instead of what mandate has been given to it.
Mapisa-Nqakula and top brass in the SANDF have repeatedly warned of capabilities lost and difficulties in fulfilling tasks such as peacekeeping and border security. A declining defence force also has implications for the local defence industry.
A military, as has often been stated, is like an insurance policy, and cannot be miraculously whipped out at a moment’s notice. It takes years to build a competent and effective defence force. As has been demonstrated over the last week, threats can erupt extremely quickly. Luckily the SANDF is not so badly degraded it cannot respond, but it is in a state of decline and needs additional resources to meet its mandate.
This is an opportunity for Mapisa-Nqakula to show that the SANDF is needed and it should be adequately resourced, as a peaceful and secure South Africa is necessary for economic growth and prosperity.
However, the SANDF is not the solution to permanently end the unrest and looting. The military, police and other security forces can only deal with the symptoms of a larger problem, and the root causes – political instability, lawlessness, poverty and inequality – need to be solved so that this type of unrest does not happen again.