Succession planning in the top echelons of the national defence force appears not to enjoy a high priority, with the most recent the appointment of an acting chief for the SA Air Force (SAAF).
Major General Mzayifani Buthelezi, previously deputy air force chief, was named “acting” successor to Lieutenant General Fabian Zimpande Msimang, who retired at age 60 after eight years in office. There has, at the time of publication, been no announcement from Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s Defence Ministry, the Department of Defence (DoD), the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) or the SAAF on a permanent Air Force Chief.
Earlier this year, SA Army Chief Lieutenant General Lindile Yam was named SANDF Chief of Staff (COS) with three-star general Thabiso Mokhosi chosen to succeed him. He died before he could assume office and Major General Mannetjies de Goede was appointed acting CArmy. His three month temporary tenure finished when Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha was named CArmy in April.
Among those who keep a weather eye on not only what the SANDF is doing but also who goes where in the force currently under the command of General Solly Shoke are Darren Olivier and Helmoed Heitman.
Olivier, Director at African Defence Review (ADR), is blunt, telling defenceWeb “succession planning for senior officers in the SANDF is an absolute disaster” while Heitman, long seen as the senior and most authoritative defence commentator in South Africa, maintains “the absence of a proper succession system is deeply deleterious”.
“SANDF succession planning should receive close scrutiny from Parliament’s defence committees. The process is opaque, riven with claims of favouritism and takes far too long. It is unacceptable that the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans and the President had not chosen a successor to Msimang by the time he retired, nor that we well past that point without even so much as a comment from the minister’s office.
“Indeed, if rumours are true, the SAAF deputy chief has not been formally appointed as acting chief, meaning a crucial post remains vacant,” Olivier said.
Heitman expands on his “deeply deleterious” comment saying there is really no excuse for not having a proper succession system.
“Even a cursory glance around the SANDF shows officers who should be considered for various senior posts, usually at least two or three possibilities.
“What should happen is a successor should be identified at least six months ahead of time from a group of officers identified and groomed for future senior appointments from at least two ranks earlier. This sees colonels as possible future major generals, brigadier generals as possible future lieutenant generals and major generals as possible future SANDF Chiefs.
“Their careers should be managed to ensure the right mix of senior command and senior staff experience, until the group is narrowed down to a smaller and manageable group from which to select. This is not too difficult. It was certainly done a little over a decade ago, with officers down to colonel and even two in the next lower rank group being identified as having potential.”
He sees a bottom line of a laid down career path, as per the Defence Review, with proper career planning across the system and particular focus on early identification of officers with general/admiral potential. This must be followed by focused career management to properly groom them.
“It should all be handled internally with no political input before at the lowest, promotion to brigadier general but preferably only from major general level up and then only with agreement of the Minister of Defence.
“Service Chiefs, Chief of Staff, Chief of Joint Operations and Chief of the national defence force should be agreed to by the President as Commander-in-Chief, on the advice of the Minister and the serving SANDF Chief.
“Persistent rumours that pretty much all senior appointments and even some as low as unit command are ‘vetted’ by the ruling party are deeply unfortunate. Party politicians other than the Minister and the President – he is after all a party politician – should keep their fingers off the armed forces. I am pretty confident 90% of officers and NCOs including former MK members will agree with me on this,” Heitman told defenceWeb.