Analysis: SANDF appointments

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The new South African National Defence Force (SANDF) senior appointments announced by President Ramaphosa this week merit comment, not on the persons but on the process of selecting officers for the top posts in the Defence Force.

I know one of these officers reasonably well and am delighted by that appointment; the others I do not know well or even at all, so am in no position to comment other than to wish them well in their new posts.

But the system of career and succession planning needs to be considered and reviewed.

The President remarked that these “appointments demonstrate the value of effective succession planning”. I beg to differ. While the appointment of General Maphwanya is in line with proper succession planning, that is coincidental. One of our greatest failures has been the patent lack of proper succession planning. The clearest demonstration of this lack has been the number of acting appointments to senior posts over the past years, most recently that of General Buthelezi as acting Chief of the Air Force. Those hamper the system, are unfair to the officers concerned, and are clearly a result of a failure to implement proper career and succession planning.

The Defence Review addressed this, setting out theoretical ideal career paths for officers and non-commissioned officers. They are ‘theoretical’ because the realities of military service will not often allow any officer to follow that ideal career path, but they can serve as a guideline.

Extrapolating from what the Defence Review set out, the Chief of the Defence Force should, ideally, be the former Chief of Joint Operations, as that appointment will provide the best insight into what the Defence Force is doing and the challenges it faces. The Chief of Joint Operations, in turn, should ideally have previously been the Chief of one of the combat services – Army, Air Force and Navy – as a ‘sideways’ appointment, or have previously commanded Special Forces, in effect a small combat service, and have held a two-star appointment since. That will ensure that an incoming Chief of Joint Operations fully understands the constraints under which the combat services must operate.

In turn, the service chiefs should have the right mix of experience for their posts. The Chief of the Army should, as a general rule, come from a combat branch and should have led a platoon, commanded a battalion and a brigade, served in a training unit and at a staff college, held staff posts, including on joint staffs,  and served as an attaché or been seconded to a foreign army. That career path would ensure the right mix of experience for an officer to hold the top post.

Similarly, the Chief of the Air Force should be a pilot or weapons officer who has commanded a squadron and a wing (or in the SAAF a systems group), while the Chief of the Navy should be a combat branch officer who has commanded at least one small vessel and one larger ship and served in command of a task group.

The point is that in each case the focus in selection must be on the primary role of the service concerned, the conduct of operations in their particular environment.

These are, of course, general rules and there will always be exceptions, and some officers have served exceedingly well as service chiefs despite quite different career paths. But there must be a rule or principle as a guideline for career and succession planning and management.

There is one other general rule that we should implement, and which was initially intended to be so: A deputy chief should be an officer who is perfectly competent to be chief but is out of step in terms of age or seniority, and is intended to provide continuity between to chiefs, not to become the chief. While that might be a little unfair to the officers concerned, the advantages in terms of continuity would be considerable.

Against that background:

  • General Maphwanya’s appointment is exactly appropriate.
  • General Mbambo’s appointment is partly in line with the general rule; while he may not have been a pilot, he has held a useful mix of posts and comes to his post from a senior joint post giving him a better understanding of the broad picture.
  • General Sangweni’s appointment is not in line with the general rule, as he has not headed one of the combat services; but the step from his present post to Chief of Joint Operations is a logical one, particularly given his experience of service in Burundi and the DRC.

The post of Surgeon-General falls outside the discussion above, so needs to be considered only in terms of past experience within the Military Health Service, which seems to have prepared General Maphaha well for the post, although service on a joint staff would have been useful in giving greater insight into the needs of the wider Defence Force.

The appointment of General Mxakato to head Defence Intelligence breaks with the concept of the deputy providing continuity rather than succeeding an outgoing chief. That is perhaps not of great import if we consider Defence Intelligence as a supporting division. But the increasing importance of intelligence and the growing trend towards cyber and information operations, suggest that Defence Intelligence is de facto becoming a combat service. If we accept that, we should look to the next Chief of Defence Intelligence being an officer who has followed a career path within Defence Intelligence similar to those outlined for the three existing combat services. We should then also give some new thought to how we source officers for Defence Intelligence: Should they be direct entry with secondments to combat services to gain insight and experience, or should they be recruited from the combat services?

These appointments could be a first step towards a proper career management and succession planning system. That should entail identifying potential senior officers early and then making sure that their career gives the right mix of experience and exposes them to challenges that will develop the ability to handle those that come with the top posts in the Defence Force. Then we will have a small group of candidates for each post as an appointment becomes due, and can select the best person given the situation pertaining at that time and the challenges that can be foreseen for that officer’s tour in the post. That will eliminate the habit of acting appointments and enhance confidence in and within the Defence Force.

In closing, it is good that the President as Commander-in-Chief announced these appointments personally. They are key appointments and should be announced appropriately.



Written by Helmoed Romer Heitman.