Analysis: South Africa’s national security priorities in question amidst troop deployment, naval visits


With the planned deployment of up to 2 900 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the planned visit of a frigate to St Petersburg, the South African Government has hit a new low in its approach to national security, going well beyond its by now routine overstretch and underfunding of the Defence Force. A new low because those taskings show an abysmal failure to prioritise.

There are good strategic, political and economic arguments for helping the DRC stabilize the east of the country – if there was a credible plan, if we had the military resources and if there were not other, more pressing, security issues demanding attention:

• Credible Plan: How can anyone believe that the 5 000-strong SADC force will be able to do what the 15 000-strong MONUSCO force was not able to do over two decades? There is no credibility there. Even less when the force seems likely to lack any serious air support in a large area of operations with difficult terrain and few – mainly bad – roads.

• Resources: The Defence Force lacks the funding, the equipment and the personnel to take on this task. The Army is short of deployable troops and serviceable equipment and the Air Force lacks trooping and attack helicopters to provide tactical air support, reconnaissance aircraft to build an operational picture, and the airlift to deploy any useful force, let alone carry out a quick reinforcement or hot extraction.

• Other Security Issues – Cabo Delgado: The insurgency is flaring up, but the SADC force is to withdraw in July. Assuming that takes place, the insurgency will flare up even more and will begin to spread. That threatens our future ability to draw gas from the field off Cabo Delgado and could evolve to present a threat of maritime terrorism or piracy in the Mozambique Channel. Should it spread south, it would place at risk electricity from Cahora Bassa and gas from Panda and Temane.

• Eswatini and Lesotho – Both are politically fragile and insurrection or insurgency in either would present a security threat that could require considerable numbers of troops to contain.

• Border Patrol – The Army does not have the funding to deploy the full 22 companies required and is limited to 15 companies, leaving long stretches of border uncovered. Worse, our air space surveillance radars are old and in need of replacement and the Navy lacks the ships and funding to patrol our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to any effect.

Given these considerations, it seems irresponsible and reckless to commit troops and resources to a mission of less immediate relevance than those being neglected. Even more so when that mission has, at best, no chance of achieving any useful outcome. At worst it could bring us a replay of the situation in Bangui in March 2013, only with more troops at risk and without a secured airport to fall back on and with even less capability to respond than then.

We would do far better to focus on Cabo Delgado, deploying an adequate force with air support there, and on our borders.

Government also wants to demonstrate its support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine by sending a frigate to St Petersburg. Skipping around the political imbecility and that it spits in the face of the Ukrainians who hosted and trained many former members of MK, consider other issues:

• The Navy has for several years not been able to patrol our Exclusive Economic Zone to any useful effect for lack of operational ships.

• The Navy was not able to provide the planned maritime interdiction force envisaged as part of the SADC mission in Cabo Delgado.

• Piracy is again flaring up in the Indian Ocean, which holds risk for our oil imports, our trade with Mediterranean countries, the Persian Gulf and South Asia, and piracy continues to be a problem in the Gulf of Guinea, placing at risk trade with West Africa.

• The Navy has not had the funding to properly maintain its frigates and submarines over the two decades they have been in service, let alone modernize or upgrade them, reducing their effectiveness and shrinking their useful service lives. Nor have they spent enough time at sea for their crews to jell as cohesive teams. The only support vessel has been in service since 1987 and needs to be replaced.

Given the present parlous situation of the Navy and its inability to perform its primary function in peacetime of patrolling our waters, let alone the operational mission off Cabo Delgado and the renewed risk of piracy, is there any sense at all in sending a frigate to visit St Petersburg and party with the navy of an aggressor country that is of zero economic and strategic relevance to us?

We would to much better to get all of our ships properly seaworthy and out patrolling our EEZ and the Mozambique Channel. And once they are operational, we could and should deploy a frigate – probably together with the support ship SAS Drakensberg – on an extended diplomatic mission around the rim of the western Indian Ocean, visiting our maritime neighbours, friends and trading partners.

Even more to the point, with piracy in the Indian Ocean again on the rise, it would be worthwhile to demonstrate presence and willingness to joint our maritime neighbours in securing the sea routes in the southwestern Indian Ocean. Do we really want to have to rely on France, India and China to do that for us?

Then the plan to send Drakensberg to Cuba and Brazil. A visit to Brazil makes sense – that country is a partner in BRICS and IBSA, participates in the ATLASUR and IBSAMAR naval exercises with the SA Navy and shares our interest in secure maritime traffic in the South Atlantic. A visit to Brazil could also usefully include a call in Argentina and Uruguay and along the western coast of Africa, again looking in on friends and neighbours who all share an interest in the South Atlantic sea routes. Nigeria, for instance, has on several occasions argued for the SA Navy to join forces with their Navy to coordinate patrols.

A visit to Cuba makes little sense, that country being economically and strategically irrelevant to South Africa, but at least will not damage our relations with our key trading partners and investors.