Defence and depressions

President Jacob Zuma’s reorganisation of state departments this week and the creation of several more has rendered obsolete former Finance minister Trevor Manuel’s February budget.
As a consequence one imagines one of new Finance minister Pravin Gordhan`s first tasks will be overseeing the drafting of a new budget and the tabling thereof when Parliament sits in June.
As the extent of the damage wrought on state finances by the global “Great Recession” becomes clearer, the question that arises is what the impact will be on defence spending in particular and security spending in general. As former Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service, Gordhan is almost uniquely qualified to know how this bankers` folly has affected the state coffers.
In times of recession finance ministers always develop the urge to cut defence budgets, and/or to divert money allocated to defence to scheme that will protect if not grow employment and industry. This year, Australia has already announced a big-budget proposal to revamp military basis in order to support its construction industry. France will purchase some frigates to keep its ailing shipyards busy. It is all very pragmatic: workers vote and companies make party-political donations.                        
While defence sending is a source of employment for many and of taxable income for the state, it remains a “grudge purchase”. That is understandable: it is a form of insurance – expensive, especially when times are hard.
US President General Dwight Eisenhower put it succinctly in a 1953 address to newspaper editors when he said that every “gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who are cold and are not clothed.
“The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…”
This is a fine sentiment and a correct departure point for any debate on defence spending.
The poet Hilaire Belloc, however provided a riposte when he reminded that it doesn`t always take two to pick a fight: “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight/But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.” Thus until human nature changes – an unlikely event – taxpayer will have to balance cost and risk and decide how much they are prepared to insure their sovereignty for, as that is what is at stake.
We will always have a navy in our port, either our own or someone else`s… We often speak of our progressive Constitution as if it is carved in stone and demand our rights as enshrined in that fine document. But unless we ensure we set aside enough for our collective defence and security, the Bill of Rights could quickly become a piece of discarded paper under some tyrant`s boot.  
South Africa slashed its defence budget in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression with even then-Defence Minister Oswald Pirow joining in. As late as September 1938 he told Parliament that in spite of all its potential wealth “South Africa has much poverty and there is a definite upper limit to what the country is prepared to spend on defence.”
A year later SA was a belligerent in World War Two and a month after that German submarines and warships prowled our waters. Despite wishful thinking that SA would have at least six months to get its military affairs in order, there was in practice no time to prepare for war. Hopes that Britain would jump to our assistance to arm the Union Defence Force were quickly dashed: she had no arms top spare, requiring everything her run-down industry could produce to arm herself.    
While the German armoured ship the Admiral Graf Spee prowled our waters the SA Naval Service mustered three officers and three ratings, but no ships. The SA Air Force had less than 30 modern aircraft: “modern” having a rather loose definition.   
With its six 11-inch (279mm) guns the Graf Spee could have done considerable damage to any
of the Union’s ports, had its captain, Hans Langsdorff, chosen to do so. He did, in fact, consider a token bombing raid on the Durban oil tank farm, using a ships` plane, but was under strict, perhaps too strict, orders not to endanger his ship, and may have been somewhat deterred by his perceptions of the country`s coastal defences – and the presence, at Simon`s Town of the Country-class 8-inch heavy cruisers HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire, tasked with hunting him down.
What if he had chosen to close with the coast and shell or bomb a port? What would have been the cost in life and property to South Africans, including those who had placed a limit on how much they were prepared to spend in their own defence?  
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