Mapisa-Nqakula – not the best but not the worst defence minister


The departure of Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula as Defence and Military Veterans Minister is a welcome change and the appointment of ANC heavyweight Thandi Modise bodes well for a reinvigorated defence ministry.

Mapisa-Nqakula was not the worst defence minster South Africa could have had, but she was not the best either. After taking over from Lindiwe Sisulu in 2012, Mapisa-Nqakula dragged her heels on the new defence review that Sisulu had pushed for, so much so that it was renamed the Defence Review 2015 when it was finally approved.

Unfortunately, because the Review did not have a funding model attached, as Sisulu intended, it never went far and the Department of Defence has repeatedly said it cannot implement its milestones, included Milestone One- Reversing the Decline of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Mapisa-Nqakula’s term in office witnessed the steady decline of the South African National Defence Force, and an ever-shrinking defence budget. Whilst she repeatedly warned of declining capabilities, unserviceable equipment and the forced move from a mandate- to a budget-driven defence force, she did little to fix it. She accepted (if reluctantly) the budget reductions and did not visibly appear to fight harder for more money. Whereas her predecessor was very vocal – to government leadership, in the media and elsewhere – Mapisa-Nqakula took a more understated approach.

Apart from her middling stewardship of the Department of Defence, Mapisa-Nqakula had her fair share of scandals. She told Parliament that Museums had stolen South African Air Force Aircraft – and then stood by while a MiG-21 fighter jet was taken out of the SAAF Museum at AFB Swartkop and given to Angola as a present. She was implicated in ‘smuggling’ her son’s Burundian girlfriend into South Africa in 2014 using an official jet; and the cherry on top was giving a ‘lift’ to ANC members to Zimbabwe in 2020. She claimed the SAAF VIP jet was going there anyway, but that was a very flimsy excuse. After a massive backlash, the ANC was made to pay for the trip.

To be fair, Mapisa-Nqakula served as defence minister somewhat reluctantly for the last few years (the tragic death of her son seemed to play a role in her reticence) but a minister has a job to do and should do it properly. Although she was a just about acceptable defence overseer, it was the larger security cluster’s failure to prevent the violent unrest of July 2021 that sealed her fate. Heads had to roll, and Mapisa-Nqakula’s was on the chopping block.

Her replacement offers strong credentials – Modise served in uMkhonto we Sizwe, chaired a couple of parliamentary defence committees for several years, was involved in various diplomacy and peace efforts on the continent and has a good reputation in Parliament. However, there are a couple of red flags: in 2017, Modise claimed a travel allowance of nearly R126 000 as she thought she was entitled to the same perks as National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete. She was asked to repay the money but it’s not clear if she ever did.

Modise was in the headlines for the wrong reason in 2014 when it emerged that dozens of animals were found dead or emaciated on her farm in the North West (she was North West Premier at the time). In April this year she was found not guilty of animal cruelty after being privately prosecuted on behalf of the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The magistrate found that the farm caretakers had abandoned the animals, and Modise said she would get back into farming again.

Whilst it may have not been her fault directly that the animals were horribly neglected (some of the pigs resorted to cannibalism to survive), it is not a good advertisement for someone who is now in charge of running a whole ministry, never mind a single farm.

Nevertheless, it would not be unreasonable to give Modise the benefit of the doubt and expect good things from the new defence minister. Hopefully the new broom will sweep clean and manage to get more support (and funding) for the National Defence Force.

Modise has a lot on her plate, with internal deployments (including Operation Prosper to ensure internal security, and Operation Corona to protect the borders) as well as external deployments (Operation Vikela to help the Southern African Development Community bring peace to northern Mozambique).

Hopefully Modise will create a funding model for the Defence Review, or better yet, create a new defence review as the old one is very outdated, especially considering events across the border. Unlike her predecessor, perhaps she will fight harder for more funding and tout the benefits of the South African National Defence Force to all and sundry.

South Africa desperately needs a competent defence minister, and hopefully Modise is it.