Why so little comment on Sisulu’s anti-piracy speech?

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Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu made an eloquent and quite forceful case on Monday night as to why it is in everyone’s direct interest to fight the scourge of piracy.

She presented a solid argument with solid facts to a meeting of Southern African Development Community (SADC) defence and intelligence chiefs in an address that has great foreign policy importance. South Africa is clearly pushing SADC towards adopting an anti-piracy policy and strategy that will then be turned into concrete action.

This is refreshing after several years of waffle and obfuscation on the matter. We’re also already walking the talk, as the deployment of forces to Pemba in Mozambique (Operation Copper) shows.

So why so little public comment or debate on the matter? Is it the silence of agreement or of indifference?

I suppose it brings as back to a favourite “hobby horse” of mine, the lack of an informed defence debate – indeed this is the very reason I founded defenceWeb. We all really need to do more to foster a public understanding of the defence and strategic challenges and choices facing South Africa, southern Africa and Africa as a whole.

A decade ago, Sisulu’s Australian counterpart said at the launch of a think tank there that “There is no area where public understanding and informed debate on key issues is more important. Yet there is not a lot of that debate in the community. Outside defence circles there is little discussion on what are the appropriate roles for the Australian Defence Force. There is little discussion on whether terms of service adequately reflect the aspirations of today’s family. There is even less debate on what the public is prepared to pay for defence. ASPI [Australian Strategic Policy Institute] can and should encourage this debate,” Senator Robert Hill said.

As one can see, the problem is not uniquely South African, African, or “developing world.” And yes, in many, no, most parts of Africa, the public scrutiny of defence is actively discouraged by the powers that are. As a vibrant constitutional democracy South Africa is different from those, but still there is little interest in defence. It is natural that this is so: the public interest in defence everywhere is tied to threat perception. With no discernible military threat against the Republic, people are getting on with their lives. Good. But that does not mean there is no threat – as Sisulu clearly showed. So it behoves us, from time to time, to tear ourselves away from our routines, to take stock of this.