The aerospace, maritime and defence industries play an important yet largely unsung role in South Africa’s economy and civil society and can do more by driving other innovations to further strengthen the economy, industry body AMD believes.
Sandile Ndlovu, Interim Executive Director of the South African Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association (AMD), said the technology in South Africa’s defence sector has allowed the country to remain globally competitive for decades, and this helps to cushion the economy from needing to import certain technologies, while also creating jobs.
At present the defence industry supports around 12 500 jobs (down from 15 000 in 2016) across 120 companies, but for every job in this sector, there are at least four downstream jobs that are created or supported.
“The aerospace, maritime and defence industries are tremendously innovative and there is a huge role they can play in local job creation. The primary focus is not only on defence, it’s also on aerospace and security. This is one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy, with technology lying at its very core.
“South Africa is now famous the world over for its part in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project, an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre of collecting area. It will be co-located in South Africa and Australia, deploying thousands of radio telescopes, and will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in previously unprecedented detail.
“Our part in the project would not have been possible without the scientists and engineers that were developed by the local defence sector, including using the efforts of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). So, too, South Africa’s nuclear modular reactor project would not have been possible without the aerospace and defence sector.”
AMD pointed out that the World Economic Forum has predicted that innovative technology will create 58 million more jobs than it removes from the global economy in the next few years and therefore the opportunities are there for those who are willing and able to embrace change, and this includes diversifying their skill sets.
“The local defence sector has the ability to train the most brilliant scientists and engineers for our country. Any advances that are made in science and engineering are almost duty-bound to spill over into civilian life, over time, in an ultimately advantageous manner,” Ndlovu said.
“Within local communities for instance, we see the SASSA cards for the social grant payment system. People may not realise that the system is secured and operated in a proper manner precisely because of technology that has been developed within the defence sector.”
After the recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, Ndlovu emphasised that AMD’s members exist to serve and protect the greater community at large. He said the deployed South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers are ably equipped by the South African defence industry, “and this is a responsibility that we take very seriously. It is in our collective interest that our soldiers are always correctly equipped for every mission that they are sent on.”
“It must be remembered that the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures that our government has implemented, of necessity to try to quell the spread of this terrible disease, have unfortunately wrought even further havoc with South Africa’s economy, and with individual lives as a consequence.
“This is where the AMD believes that it is time to re-set South Africa’s thinking on its aerospace, maritime and defence industries, which are currently playing an important yet largely un-sung role in South Africa’s economy and civil society, but with enormous potential to drive even more positive change.
“The value, both existing and potential, of South Africa’s defence sector to our economy is enormous. Civil society is aware that the defence sector exists to provide sovereign security, but people may not always be aware that the offering is so much more than this. The technology required in this sector is able to drive other innovations which, sooner or later, can have a positive effect on civilian life.
“For example, the internet today exists because it was originally part of a defence initiative in America, as does the GPS feature on our smart phones, which allows us to easily navigate our way to places previously unknown or unfamiliar to us.
“In short, the aerospace, maritime and defence industries are ready, willing and waiting to play an even greater role in South Africa’s future and to assist in building up its further prosperity, for the greater good of all,” Ndlovu said.
One of the initiatives AMD is helping drive is the Aerospace & Defence Masterplan, which was finalised in late 2020. The Masterplan aims to increase local production of selected products by 50% from current baseline levels by the end of 2024; improve export sales by 100% from the current baseline by the end of 2022; increase formal employment from current levels by 50% by the end of 2025; retain advanced skills in the ecosystem and double the participation of black and/or women participants in the industry from the current baseline by the end of 2022.
The Masterplan has developed a number of clear goals and plans of action for the stabilisation and development of the South African aerospace and defence industries, from doubling exports to establishing the Centurion Aerospace Village. Other focus areas include furthering government-to-government marketing, getting local companies to participate in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) supply chains, developing South Africa as a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) hub, implementing space programmes, marketing defence intellectual property, and completing local defence projects, amongst others.
AMD believes the local defence industry, which has been in decline for some years, can thrive if it received direct, deliberate, focused and high-level political support; stable and predictable local defence spending including R&D; a stable and sustainable Denel; an effective arms control regime to facilitate arms export and suitable financing and related instruments.