Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise, delivering her budget vote speech on Tuesday, has said that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is willing to respond to critical events, but lacks the resources.
She reminded parliamentarians that over recent years, the SANDF has been called upon to ensure the delivery of basic services, including assisting the North-West Province with health services, the Department of Water and Sanitation with the Vaal River clean-up project, the National Disaster Management Centre with COVID-19 pandemic response, and Kwa-Zulu Natal flood relief. This is in addition to 15 000 SANDF members deployed to quell civil unrest in July last year, and over a thousand soldiers deployed on peacekeeping missions abroad.
“The deployments speak to our responsibilities and there is no way we cannot be at the centre of saving lives,” she said. However, “these deployments also come at great cost to the equipment and funding of the SANDF. There is often little or no re-imbursement delivered. This puts the SANDF under great pressure.”
She told parliamentarians that there is a dire shortage of critical equipment, including few serviceable aircraft, and equipment needed to respond to future disasters (tents, water purification systems etc.) is “critically low.” As a result, “the SANDF will be hard pressed to respond to critical events in other Provinces should the need arise. I state this with a very heavy heart – we are willing but we lack resources.”
Modise lamented the declining economic performance of South Africa’s economy placing strain on the defence budget, but also resulting in grounds for instability, and the demise of the defence industry.
“There can be no doubt that there is a widening dichotomy between that which the SANDF is expected to achieve and the resources that are provided to achieve these expectations. SANDF is being spread so thin. Our inability to maintain, repair and overhaul our aging fleets of combat equipment simply adds to our already dire block obsolescence of our prime mission equipment,” the Minister stated.
“We have unaffordable legacy defence systems and defence capabilities. We have a bloated facilities footprint and we also have the urgent need to rejuvenate the SANDF with young and healthy soldiers. Within these constraints, the focus of the National Defence Force in the short to medium-term will be on the repair, maintenance and overhaul of existing defence capabilities, especially those capabilities required for current operations.”
Determined to “get the job done with the little that we have,” Modise has tasked the Chief of the National Defence Force with prioritising the modernisation of prime-mission equipment as well as the maintenance, repair and overhaul of legacy systems; urgently stop expenditure on, and potentially dispose of, that which will not be needed; establish a significantly reduced leased-facilities portfolio; examine renewable technologies for refurbished Defence Facilities, as was demonstrated recently at Air Force Base Hoedspruit; and rejuvenate the personnel component.
As salaries account for much of the defence budget, the Compensation of Employees (CoE) “is a grave priority area which must be addressed. Upon my appointment as Minister, I discovered a bloated top-structure and a lack of rejuvenation in the bottom and middle components of the Department,” Modise said.
To trim salary costs, National Treasury has allocated R1 billion to fund the Mobility Exit Mechanism during FY2022/23 and R800 million in FY2023/24 “to assist us in fitting in with the Compensation of Employees allocation. Simply put, we need to retire more senior staff and recruit more young and agile people.”
Touching on the defence industry, Modise said the SANDF is highly dependent on a healthy and sovereign indigenous local defence industry. “One cannot ignore the desperate plight of the Defence and Defence Related Industry. This sector has historically delivered an excellent return on government investment, is currently not only a mainstream industrial manufacturing and development role-player, but is also key to the sovereignty of South Africa and the deep-level support required by the National Defence Force.” Modise has tasked Armscor with drafting a review of the defence industry and its capabilities and making suggestions to improve the health of the industry.
On a more positive note, and some good news for the industry, Modise said she was grateful to accept the first of three multi-mission Warrior Class inshore patrol vessels into SA Navy service on 18 May. “This is the part of rejuvenating our patrol capacity. The SAS Sekhukhune will greatly assist in securing South Africa’s maritime zones.” The first of three inshore patrol vessels was built by Damen Shipyards Cape Town, which will deliver the other two over the next two years.