“After various parliamentary meetings, colloquiums, academic round tables and defence industry discussions, is it evident the 2015 Defence Review objectives and milestones are unrealistic, unaffordable, and unsustainable. We must move on.” This was among the opening remarks by Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kobus Marais at a recent webinar centred around finding solutions to the many challenges the South African defence sector faces.
On 21 May, the University of Stellenbosch hosted a webinar to discuss solutions to the myriad of challenges the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the South African defence industry seek to overcome. Hosted by Dr Moses Khanyile, director of military studies at the University of Stellenbosch, panellists shared their thoughts on Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s five-point action plan, which she unveiled during her budget vote address earlier in May.
The plan, firstly, covers cost savings pertaining to personnel and restructuring of the Department of Defence (DoD), and secondly tasking the Secretary for Defence, Gladys Kudjoe, to investigate affordable levels of defence ambition. Third is tasking the Chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, to review staff and command structures in line with a new force design. Fourth, it entails tasking the Secretary for Defence to redesign the defence secretariat to strengthen governance within the organisation. Finally, it aims to look at modernising the SANDF supported by Armscor and the defence industry.
Mashudu Bidzha, from the public finance division of National Treasury, specifically responsible for defence matters, said that National Treasury welcomes the plan. On the matter of the first point in the action plan, Bidzha said, “There is no ways you can deal with the current challenges facing the defence force without dealing with Human Resources related issues… This has always been a point of contention between ourselves (National Treasury) and the department (DoD).” He added that National Treasury will be working very closely with the DoD to ensure this action plan becomes a reality.
Francois Vrey, professor emeritus at the military science faculty of the University of Stellenbosch, highlighted the importance of looking towards the future when it comes to arresting the decline of the SANDF and the defence industry. The Mozambique Defence Armed Forces and their inability to defend their country are a close-to-home example of what can happen if declining defence capabilities and inadequate funding persists for years on end, he said, adding that “change around us can take place much quicker than military policy can keep up with”.
Marais scorned the five-point plan for its lack of timelines, saying the first point of the action plan indicates “over time this [change to numbers of personnel] must be implemented. “What does over time mean?” Marais asked, adding that he would appreciate short-, medium- and long-term objectives as the SANDF and the DoD are struggling with short-term challenges such as cost of employees and defence equipment challenges.
Marais said political will between the Minster of Defence and Military Veterans and the Commander-in-Chief to bring lasting solutions must be achieved as well as restructuring, repositioning, and reprioritising of the South African National Defence Force as a smaller but vigilant and responsive, infantry driven institution. Refunding models with a buy-in from government and industry stakeholders are also needed.
Sandile Ndlovu, CEO of the South African Aerospace, Military and Defence Industry Export Council (SAAMDEC), spoke to the last point of the action plan in saying, as a representative of the South African defence industry as a whole, “What the minister calls for is what we have been asking for, for the longest of time. As an industry to be engaged because we are a South African defence industry, therefore, we cannot fold our arms when our primary client (the SANDF) is struggling.”
Mapisa-Nqakula’s five-point action plan could do good work in arresting the decline of the SANDF and the defence industry, but as Marais points out, he has seen many plans proposed in the past but it is the ability of those responsible to implement and execute these plans that really matters.