The new SA Army Reserves initiative to, among others, improve rural safety and security has drawn largely positive comment with reservations and an obvious comparison to the now defunct Commando system.
Announced last month by Brigadier General Gerhard Kamffer, Director: SA Army Reserves, the embryonic Mzansi Home Guard will see better utilisation of South Africa’s part-time soldiers. This will see Reserve Force soldiers, when called up, work to support needy communities with water and sanitation services, assist in responding to natural and other disasters as well as contributing to intelligence collection in rural and semi-rural areas.
Both Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader Pieter Groenewald and African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier point out similarities to the now disbanded Commando system. This was the previous SA Defence Force (SADF) home guard providing intelligence in rural areas, with the major difference being then it was against what was termed “terrorism” and “insurgents”. Other duties included guard duties at what were then national key points, now under the government critical infrastructure umbrella, and taskings in support of the defence force of the time.
Groenewald, himself a former Commando, sees the proposed Mzansi Home Guard as a thinly disguised version of the “old Commando system”.
“It, as we used to, makes use of local knowledge to provide intelligence. This ranged from stock theft to the presence of suspicious people and others. The Commandos were, by and large, staffed by locals with knowledge of their area and people in it.
“I somehow don’t see people in rural areas today having anywhere near the same level of trust in a Mzansi Home Guard as they did in their local commando,” he said pointing to wide lack of support for both soldiers and police in the lockdown currently in force as part of the government reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.
“In principle, I have no objection to the initiative but stress it must be implemented with proper and enforceable command and control. If this is not there, it’s not going to work.”
Olivier told defenceWeb “some support” for the Mzansi Home Guard concept is based on the assumption it would recreate the rural security function of the then Commandos.
“To me, that does not appear to be the case. That function would require a specific structure and personnel numbers the (defence) budget cannot support and it should be done by the SA Police Service.”
He sees the home guard concept as “interesting” but expressed concern it will divert resources from the core mission of the national defence force and “blur the lines” between civilian and military agencies.
Calling the initiative “well-intentioned,” Olivier sees it as an opportunity for unemployed part-time soldiers to perform useful work and receive much-needed income. This would apply specifically to those with technical qualifications, such as engineers in various disciplines.
“This opportunity only exists because of the failure of state civilian agencies, especially at municipal level. The risk is if the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) takes on roles like those envisioned for the Mzansi Home Guard it will be unable to keep the scope small and will increasingly be drawn into filling gaps left by those state institutions.
“Worse, it may create an incentive for national departments and local governments to avoid either investing in or resolving problems around service delivery in the hope of handing it to the Home Guard. As we’ve seen in other countries, over the medium to long term this often leads to a distortionary effect where the military spends most of its resources and personnel doing work that should be done by local government, becomes too involved in service delivery in ways that increase corruption risk and loses sight of its primary missions.”