President and Commander-in-Chief Cyril Ramaphosa says he wants improved funding for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), but little additional money is making its way to the military.
Ramaphosa, answering oral questions from Members of Parliament in the National Assembly during a hybrid question and answer session on 2 November, said the work of the SANDF is critical to the security of South Africa and the safety and wellbeing of its people, but a constrained fiscal environment “has required the SANDF prioritise its activities to optimise the effectiveness and efficiency of all aspects of defence.”
Ramaphosa told the National Assembly that despite constraints, the SANDF “continues to demonstrate that it is ready, willing and able to respond to both national, internal, regional and international threats. The SANDF has participated in various peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the United Nations, African Union, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC),” he said.
Highlighting the SANDF’s role in responding to the catastrophic flooding that struck the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in April 2022, he said “through Operation Chariot, which is a standing contingency operation for support to other government departments for disaster management and humanitarian relief, the SANDF undertook search and rescue operations, transported relief material and equipment, and assisted with the repair and rehabilitation of roads and bridges. We should expect that the country will continue to experience extreme weather events due to climate change, and that the SANDF will be called upon to assist in responding to any disasters that may arise.”
This includes to neighbouring countries as well: “Some of our neighbours, whenever there are climate change disasters, always rely on our air capability to assist them and also on our engineering capabilities to assist them rebuild some of their own infrastructure.”
Ramaphosa also mentioned the SANDF’s pandemic support and its working together with the South African Police Service in July 2021 to curb civil unrest. Last month the Commander-in-Chief extended the deployment of nearly 900 soldiers to help the police fight crime and protect infrastructure nationally.
“We can all agree that we would want the SANDF, as with all critical components of the state, to have more resources and more capability. The Defence Force has nevertheless shown itself to be capable of responding effectively when called upon to do so and they will continue to respond effectively when called upon to do so as they always respond to the call of duty,” the President stated.
“I am very proud of how our South African National Defence Force members and command thereof have really taken on the task that they have always been given both inside and outside of our country…Our national defence force is really up to the tasks at the best and worst of times.”
According to Ramaphosa, “the underfunding that has been going on with regard to the SANDF is a matter that we are addressing and I have also said that we need to increase the funding of the SANDF,” to secure South Africa and respond to natural disasters.
“Based on an extensive analysis, the SANDF has developed a plan that is known within the Department of Defence as the Journey to Greatness. This is based on how over the years the funding of our SANDF has been going down and we have sought to arrest that and to begin a process of uplifting the capacitation of the defence force. In terms of this plan, the disaster management capability of the SANDF will form part of the greater rapid deployment capability. This capability consists of land, air, maritime and military health forces with dedicated specialist and supporting elements capable of being deployed for a wide range of missions at short notice.”
Ramaphosa said the Journey to Greatness is going to involve the capacitation of the SANDF. “I was amongst the first to receive their recommendations and I have agreed with them that we would like them to return to greatness. That will require funding and funding we will make available. Currently what we are going through is a momentary dip,” the Commander-in-Chief said.
The SANDF is ‘broken’
John Steenhuisen, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, challenged Ramaphosa’s assertions, saying: “it’s duplicitous to say you are fighting for more funding when your MTBS [medium-term budget statement] tabled yesterday speaks to exactly the opposite. The reality is that our South African Air Force and the SANDF are on their deathbed and frankly your words of praise ring hollow when you will not support, equip, train and ensure our men and women in uniform have the best possible equipment that they need.”
Steenhuisen referenced Thandi Modise’s answer to a question put to her that revealed 85% of South Africa’s aircraft fleet is currently out of action. “That’s because they are non-serviceable, they are old, or there are no spare parts to fix them…this is yet another ANC made crisis and another example of something that you have broken, just like Transnet, just like Eskom, just like Prasa, and the list goes on. They can hardly come to the rescue of our own citizens in times of trouble in KwaZulu-Natal,” Steenhuisen said.
He asked the President if he could say with a clear conscience that South Africa can be protected if attacked externally or from within. “The answer is simply yes,” Ramaphosa replied. “We have a very capable South African National Defence Force able to execute the tasks assigned. When I have deployed them they have always lived up to their true capability. Even as yes, they have faced many constraints, these are constraints we are addressing. The challenges that we are facing now, the dip that they will go through in terms of their budget is momentary.
“As we move on further forward and as our fiscal position improves, the defence force is going to be one of those government entities that we are going to focus more attention on. When I realised that over the years that the budget has continuously been coming down I did say we need to turn this around and last year we were able to allocate a little bit more money to them but now we are facing challenges that required that we reprioritise…going forward we are going to ensure that yes they are well funded, well capacitated and…we will make sure that soon becomes sooner and they will be given the tools that will make them a bit more capable than they are.”
Last week’s adjusted defence budget vote allocates an extra R1.343 billion to the Department of Defence for 2023/24, bringing the total defence allocation to R52.468 billion. Earlier this year, Treasury allocated R1 billion to get the Air Force’s medium transport aircraft airworthy, R1.4 billion to refit the Navy’s frigates and submarines and R700 million for technology for border protection.
However, the Department of Defence last year said it is underfunded by nearly 50%, as its full cost funding requirement is R75 billion, and this shortfall poses a multitude of risks to the functioning of the SANDF. To rejuvenate and re-equip the SANDF to make it a truly effective force would cost R41 billion over 25 years.