National Security


I’m growing increasingly concerned about “national security”. Two things strike me, first that the term has made a return from the dead and second that no-one who bandies the term about, including defenceWeb, ever defines it.



National security fell into some disgrace during the Apartheid era and was completely discredited in the South African context in 1994 when the African National Congress replaced the National Party in power.

Two years later, the Defence White Paper (DWP) reinterpreted the term substantially. It noted that in “the new South Africa national security is no longer viewed as a predominantly military and police problem. It has been broadened to incorporate political, economic, social and environmental matters.”

The authors of the DWP averred that at the heart of this new approach is a paramount concern with the security of people. “Security,” the DWP asserted, was “an all-encompassing condition in which individual citizens live in freedom, peace and safety; participate fully in the process of governance; enjoy the protection of fundamental rights; have access to resources and the basic necessities of life; and inhabit an environment which is not detrimental to their health and well-being.”

At national level the objectives of security policy therefore encompassed the consolidation of democracy; the achievement of social justice, economic development and a safe environment; and a substantial reduction in the level of crime, violence and political instability.

We were told stability and development were “regarded as inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing.”

At international level “the objectives of security policy include the defence of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the South African state, and the promotion of regional security in Southern Africa.

Back home, the government recognised “that the greatest threats to the South African people are socio-economic problems like poverty, unemployment, poor education, the lack of housing and the absence of adequate social services, as well as the high level of crime and violence.

“National security shall be sought primarily through efforts to meet the political, economic, social and cultural rights and needs of SA’s people, and through efforts to promote and maintain regional security.

Therefore it came as some surprise to see the term rehabilitated in senior political circles. First sacked President Thabo Mbeki established a nebulous “National Security Council“, and then he used the term to justify the firing of national director of prosecutions Mokotedi Mpshe. Also resurrected at this time was the somewhat Orwellian concept of “state security” as distinct from “human security” or securing the primacy of the Constitution, something that should be an important consideration in a state where the law, not Parliament or the executive, is sovereign.

The term has made a further comeback under defence and military veterans minister Lindiwe Sisulu, perhaps understandably so as she is a former Intelligence minister.

She has in short order described holding an open briefing on the state of the SA National Defence Force as something that would endangering national security and decried Democratic Alliance claims on arms exports as well as a mutinous riot by soldiers in Pretoria as breaches of national security.

At no time did she articulate a definition for the term. It is clear from the context however that she did not have the touchy-feely human security definition in mind.    

Earlier today Cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko also described the riot as “undermining national security.” He too did not define the term.

People-centric security versus state-centric security

What has since become known as people-centric or “human” security contrasts somewhat with the state-centric approach that went before. The SA Defence Force`s Joint Military Dictionary defined national security as a “concept of guarantee against the violation of the safety of the state, rulers, forms of government, institutions and population, including measures for the collection of information on, analysis and evaluation of actual and potential threats, and action in accordance with the powers devolving implicitly or explicitly within the ambit of national defence.”

“National safety”, by contrast, was a “concept of safeguarding the inviolability of the state ruler, forms of government, institutions and population against all actual and potential dangers, both internal and external, including the overall governmental function on the highest level of controlling the application and effective maintenance of national defence and national security.”

Other definitions

The US Department of Defence Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms of 2005 by contrast define national security as a “collective term encompassing both national defence and foreign relations of the United States. Specifically, the condition provided by: a. a military or defence advantage over any foreign nation or group of nations; b. a favourable foreign relations position; or c. a defence posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action from within or without, overt or covert.

The dictionary separately defines “national security interests” as the “foundation for the development of valid national objectives that define US goals or purposes. National security interests include preserving US political identity, framework, and institutions; fostering economic well-being; and bolstering international order supporting the vital interests of the United States and its allies.”

“National objectives”, in turn, are the “aims, derived from national goals and interests, toward which a national policy or strategy is directed and efforts and resources of the nation are applied.”

“National security strategy” as a subset of national strategy is described as the “art and science of developing, applying, and coordinating the instruments of national power (diplomatic, economic, military, and informational) to achieve objectives that contribute to national security.

“National” or “grand strategy” is the “art and science of developing and using the diplomatic, economic, and informational powers of a nation, together with its armed forces, during peace and war to secure national objectives”.

And on it goes…

Definitions are important. Without them we cannot judge what other mean or, in the case of “national security” measure whether an action indeed imperils the security of the nation – and to what extent.

Terminological inexactitude, to use Winston Churchill`s colourful phrase, has long been the preferred tool of those who seek say one thing but mean another.       

Using the readiness briefing as an example, we have some saying it would be harmful to national security to have an open discussion on the matter. Others argue the contrary. We will not know who is right or who is wrong – and to what extent – until be know the nature of the creature we are dealing with.         

I would venture it is necessary for our national security that we have a public definition of that term as soon as is possible.