Defence Minister needs a hearts and mind campaign and a retrenchment plan that works


When she delivered her budget vote address in Parliament last month, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula certainly drew a line in the sand as far as telling MPs the time had come for hard decisions about the national defence force.

Her remarks were a preface to a plea for the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to become a “mandate” financed government organ rather than just another government department which National Treasury runs a rule over and then decides how much money it is going to get.

The Defence Minister’s remarks made sense but she – and her senior staff in both the Department of Defence (DoD) and the SANDF –have to put in the hard yards if her arguments are to gain any traction.

At the outset she is going to have to convince Parliament, including the President and Cabinet, that South Africa does need a properly funded defence force. This is likely to be an uphill battle because defence in democratic South Africa is by and large, a non-entity when it comes to public debate – and the public purse. With the odd exception, parliamentarians do not know the different between a G5 and an R5 – nor do they care.

There’s enemy number one for Mapisa-Nqakula and her parliamentary liaison/communications personnel. Embark on a planned, targeted education campaign for elected representatives. Tell them and take them to military bases and facilities. Let them see and ask questions of soldiers and the officers who command them. Only if those who are supposed to represent the best interests of all South Africans in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces know, understand and appreciate what the SANDF is and does will there be a possibility of change for the better for the defence budget.

At the same time the Minister has to mobilise communications personnel in both the SANDF and the DoD to do a thorough – and enduring – hearts and minds campaign on South Africans, who need to know why South Africa has a military and the work of soldiers, sailors and pilots in defending and protecting South Africa, especially on border patrol, and in building peace on the continent, through peace support operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tell people what soldiers do and the conditions they experience during, as one example, the border protection tasking Operation Corona. Also keep South Africans in the loop about air force operations and missions because there’s nothing worse than seeing – and hearing – military jets and not being told anything.

If South Africans know “their” airmen, military medics, sailors and soldiers are there for them they are more likely to support efforts to increase the allocation given the military by National Treasury because it is a national asset they can be proud of.

These actions aside, to not only address budget shortfalls but also the ‘dead wood’, Minister Mapisa-Nqakula simply has to address SANDF personnel numbers. There are just too many people in uniform, supported by public service employees, and the numbers have to be cut. It’s never easy, especially with a national election on the horizon, but it has to be done or any work done to win hearts and minds – at whatever level – will be wasted.