The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is not strong enough to intervene in the insurgency in neighbouring Mozambique should it be required to, as it is underfunded and overstretched, experts have said.
Speaking during a Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) mini-symposium on the South African National Defence Force (SANDF)’s Force Design and Related Matters on 3 September, defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman said it would be difficult to help Mozambique given the present state of the military.
This comes after international relations minister Naledi Pandor this week said South Africa was ready to support its neighbour and SADC colleague, but this could only happen if requested by Mozambique, whose president Filipe Nyusi took over chairmanship of SADC last month.
Pandor is reported as saying: “If it is more intelligence support, if it is the South African Navy patrolling the coast, if it is assistance from our national defence force, we as South Africa stand ready, but we must have that indication from the government of Mozambique.
“Mozambique is a sovereign country, if it needs assistance from any of us it would ask for it. Should South Africa be jumping into Mozambique without a request from the country, without any indication as to where it needs help? I’m not sure that we can do that.”
Heitman said the South African Navy could close the Rovuma River mouth but it would need more money and the South African Air Force could provide reconnaissance and surveillance if additional funding was allocated for it. However, the Army does not have enough infantry to do the job as long-term peacekeeping missions have tied up at least four battalions.
Heitman said that with the budget the SANDF has today, it can look after South Africa’s borders, maritime zones and maybe intervene in a small country like Lesotho if necessary but “we cannot do regional missions on this budget. We are short on infantry and our mechanised forces have ageing equipment.” He added that the Navy’s vessels are ageing, the Air Force is flying old aircraft and the whole range of capability gaps can only be filled with more money.
Dr Moses Khanyile, non-executive director at Armscor and National Defence Industry Council (NDIC) Strategy Project Leader, told the mini-symposium that for a long time South Africa believed there were no threats and that the country was in a peaceful neighbourhood, “but guess what – South Africa gets called in to intervene in Africa. Most of these interventions are not planned, not in the budget. This means we need to think differently in terms of our involvement in the region.”
“We need to help out our brothers and sister up north but there is no funding to back up that commitment.”
Heitman added that threats can materialise very quickly – faster than one can build or rebuild a defence force. He said that South Africa is at the moment too weak to be able to deal with both existing and foreseeable threats.
He suggested that when government asks the SANDF to go somewhere [such as Mozambique], the SANDF needs to insist on additional funding for those deployments otherwise the SANDF stays home.
“The defence force is often its own worst enemy and always seems to pull a rabbit out of a hat and perform small miracles, therefore people say okay, they don’t need more cash. Meanwhile the defence force cutting into muscle and bone.”
The symposium heard that developing an effective defence force after an extended period of neglect, is an undertaking of two to three decades. That is in part because of time required to develop doctrines and senior officers and a factor of the rate at which junior ranks can be trained and equipment absorbed.
The discussion comes as South Africa realises it faces conflict across the border, which was unforeseen several years ago. The insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province “brought home the reality we are not immune from conflict in our neighbourhood and across the region” according to Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Co-operation chair, Tandi Mahambehlala.
In a statement issued post a briefing by Pandor earlier this week, Mahambehlala indicated the briefing was called because the committee “wanted to know the implications of this conflict (Cabo Delgado) on our neighbourhood and region”. Also “how South African diplomacy is utilised to mitigate escalation of the conflict before it spreads in the region”.
Mahambehlala, in a Parliamentary Communication Service statement, pointed out the “emerging threat in Mozambique was a matter of concern and also a threat to the Southern African Development Community (SADC)”.
“The conflict brought insecurity to the region, thus far a beacon of peace and stability on the continent,” she said.
The Parliamentary committee supported the approach taken by the government department tasked with foreign relations, generally from the diplomatic point. It is important to act “within the collective of SADC” and for Mozambique to move “in unison with the region and continent” in addressing the Cabo Delgado situation, it said.