Parliamentary defence oversight in SA – Looking back on the 6th Parliament and key issues for the 7th Parliament

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Parliamentary oversight is an important practice in democracies as it prevents dominance by the executive branch of government and ensures accountability. Oversight of the state’s defence portfolio is of specific importance to ensure accountability of civilian and military leaders to maintain a credible defence force capable of carrying out its constitutional mandate.

However, the system of parliamentary oversight is not without its shortcomings and its success depends on many variables, primarily the commitment of Members of Parliament (MP) and the functioning of parliamentary defence committees. In the South African Parliament, this oversight function is shared primarily by the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) of the National Assembly, and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) consisting of Members from the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.

After 1994, with the integration of forces to form the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), there was significant interest in defence matters in the country. This also reflected in Parliament’s work with many debates on the state of the military, and regular committee meetings on defence policy in the late 1990s. For example, members of the JSCD were actively involved in the development of the 1998 Defence Review. Parliamentary activity around defence matters arguably peaked around the 1999 arms deal, but with the institution highly criticised for a lack of robust oversight. Thereafter, parliamentary activity around defence matters decreased, in line with a broader decrease in interest in defence matters in what Prof Lindy Heinecken termed the growing civil-military gap in South Africa. At Parliament we saw, for example, a drastic decrease in the meetings of the JSCD; limited engagement on defence policy, including on the 2015 Defence Review when compared to the 1998 process; and, reduced oral question sessions on defence. As we head into the 7th democratic Parliament, a key question is from what foundation the new parliamentary defence committees will be built? What was achieved by the 6th Parliament and what gaps remain that can be addressed in the new Parliament?

Looking back on the 6th Parliament’s defence oversight

The 6th Parliament (2019-2024) showed a marked improvement in the regularity of engagement on defence matters, especially at Committee level. Compared to the 5th Parliament (2014-2019), PCDMV meetings increased from 104 to 127 and JSCD meetings from 32 to 89. In total, the 6th Parliament’s defence committees had 80 more public oversight engagements on defence, despite Parliament being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, these engagements did not result in many additional debates in the Houses of Parliament, despite the JSCD calling for a dedicated defence debate in its mid-term report. Important though was the post Covid-19 shift of defence committee meetings to a virtual platform that allowed greater availability of Members of both Houses of Parliament while simultaneously allowing the public to follow engagements online, potentially contributing to wider defence debate in the country.

So, what did the 6th Parliament focus on? The PCDMV considered ongoing matters from the 5th Parliament, such as irregular expenditure incurred under the 1 Military Hospital refurbishment project and engagement with the Presidential Task Team on Military Veterans. The Committee also fulfilled its statutory requirements by considering quarterly expenditure and performance reports from the departments, annual reports, departmental budgets and the drafting of annual Budgetary Review and Recommendations Report (BRRR) under the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act. It is well known that the South African defence budget has steadily decreased and that Parliament did not invoke its power to amend this throughout the 6th Parliament. However, the PCDMV used the BRRR to successfully motivate for some form of budgetary intervention, convincing National Treasury to allocate additional funds for border safeguarding technology, to recover the medium-airlift capability, to start the process of the midlife upgrades of the SA Navy’s frigates and submarines and to implement an exit mechanism to help the SANDF right-size its personnel costs. Towards the end of the 6th Parliament, the PCDMV started to focus on issues of consequence management in the departments by considering reports from the Auditor-General, the Provost Marshal-General and the Directorate Priority Crimes Investigation (Hawks).

The drastic increase in the number of meetings held by the JSCD during the 6th Parliament enabled it to consider presidential letters of employment of the SANDF timeously, although delays were still visible in some cases. There were regular engagements with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) not only on imports and exports, but on ways to make the body more efficient for local manufacturers. Similarly, the JSCD held more frequent engagements with the South African Defence Industry through visiting the 2022 Africa Aerospace and Defence Expo, liaising with the Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries (AMD) and visiting local manufacturers such as RDM, Milkor and Damen Shipyards. Oversight visits to military bases and specifically a visit to the SANDF border deployments laid bare many of the shortcomings and resulted in recommendations for increased funding for border safeguarding technology. The Committee addressed delays in procurement projects, including Projects Hoefyster, Hotel, Biro and other equipment maintenance contracts, albeit with varied results, especially on Project Hoefyster that has seen multi-year delays. Most significantly, the JSCD published its first ‘mid-term report’, as required by Parliament’s Joint Rules. The JSCD concluded that the level of defence readiness of the SANDF, including its conventional and secondary military roles, is deteriorating and is in urgent need of redress to prevent the loss of capabilities and conventional obsolescence. Delays in addressing this decline will impact the SANDF’s ability to fulfil its Constitutional mandate.

 Lessons from the 6th Parliament and looking forward

The 6th Parliament not only increased its defence engagements but touched on issues relevant to the decline in the country’s defence capability. However, the SANDF is arguably in a worse state in 2024 than it was in 2019, so what has been the impact of oversight? Given the years of defence neglect, including oversight thereof, it is unlikely that one parliamentary term will ensure a complete turnaround in oversight and set the SANDF on the right course. There are also limitations in what Parliament can achieve in such a turnaround as the managing of the state’s defence remains a function of the executive branch of government. However, the level of engagement on defence in the 6th Parliament can be seen as foundational towards oversight recovery and renewing the defence debate in South Africa and it is it is incumbent on the incoming administration to further sharpen its oversight responsibility.

A key shortcoming of the 6th Parliament’s defence oversight that the 7th Parliament could address relates to in-depth policy debate around the the future of the SANDF and the broader policy direction of government around a defence force that South Africa needs and can afford. This will require careful oversight of the Minister of Defence’s SANDF Future Strategic Direction and enhanced engagement with external experts and role-players. The 6th Parliament’s oversight also did not manage to correct the high level of key leadership vacancies in the DOD, including Secretary for Defence, Chief Financial Officer and Chief of the Reserves. At a more operational level, the 6th Parliament did manage to obtain selected ring-fenced funding for air and naval platforms, but the availability of such equipment further declined in recent years. Finally, and perhaps most significant given Parliament’s budgetary oversight function, the defence allocation continued to decline during the 6th Parliament.

In some areas, important work was started by the 6th Parliament that requires finalisation by the 7th Parliament. This includes the PCDMV’s work on re-balancing the salary component of the DOD’s expenditure and rejuvenating the rapidly ageing SANDF. Both defence committees recommended, after a Study Tour to Germany, that the DOD, in consultation with Treasury, develops a new Human Resources management strategy for long-term stability in the SANDF’s personnel contingent by focusing on force rejuvenation and the creation of a permanent exit mechanism for older soldiers who will not advance in their military careers, and that such an exit mechanism ensures a smooth transition to civilian life. Further, in 2023, the PCDMV tasked the Auditor-General to investigate the repair and maintenance value-chain around prime-mission equipment and the ongoing delays in Project Hoefyster. The latter is closely linked to the matter of consequence management in the Department that became an increasing focus point of the committees towards the end of the 6th Parliament. Continued oversight on these areas will be key to address the SANDF’s core combat capabilities and the maintenance of a disciplined military force.

Despite its shortcomings, all data points to a much-improved oversight period in the 6th Parliament when compared to (at least) the preceding two parliaments. A solid foundation has been laid but, given the SANDF myriad of problems, thorough oversight will be required in the 7th Parliament to aid defence turnaround. The baton is passed to the 7th Parliament and a new set of MPs. Only time will tell the direction of defence debate and oversight over the next five years.

*SIGLA will be hosting a Webinar on 27 June 2024 that will look at the role of parliamentary defence oversight as well as the regional and domestic roles of the SANDF. For more information on the Webinar and register, see the SIGLA website.

Written by Dr Wilhelm Janse van Rensburg, a Research fellow at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA) at Stellenbosch University.