Current Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is the second longest serving in the portfolio since democracy and she will not look back with too much fondness on 2019.
That she did not expect to remain the Cabinet member entrusted with the nation’s sovereignty and many aspects of its security was brought to the fore in October when she told a senior SA National Defence Force (SANDF) general and flag officers communication session she did not expect to be defence minister after the May election. Another pointer to her not remaining in public service was her name appearing as candidate 34 on the ANC election list ahead of polling day on 8 May. This put her one place out of a Ministerial position as there were at the time 33 ministers in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. The Cabinet was reshuffled minimally during the year with Mapisa-Nqakula retaining the defence and military veterans post as her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, also remaining.
The better part of her year was the second half when she laid down the law to the South African military attaché corps and followed this up with the announcement of a task team to investigate reported SEA (sexual abuse and exploitation) cases in the national defence force. She also used this topic to give her senior officers an ear-bashing for failure to investigate and report SEA incidents.
This coincides with the opinion of African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier.
He called her decision to over-ride SANDF generals and institute the SEA task team Mapisa-Nqakula’s “most positive action of the year”.
“It is an important step and more than any of her predecessors were willing to do, even when facing the same lack of action and intransigence. Her willingness to speak openly and strongly about this and to publicly criticise top SANDF leadership, is to be welcomed. It would be unhealthy to have an openly antagonistic relationship between the minister and SANDF but it’s just as unhealthy to have unquestioning deference without any of the tension civilian oversight inherently demands,” Olivier told defenceWeb.
On the opposite side of the fence as far as Mapisa-Nqakula’s contribution to defence in 2019 is Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister, Kobus Marais.
His overall assessment of the ministerial year basically boils down to “she has not done well”.
“As political leader she has overseen the deterioration of all divisions of the SANDF and done little to nothing to address that. She confirmed there is no political will to reposition and reprioritise the SANDF to best comply with Section 200 of the Constitution within the constraints of the approved budget.
“My frustration and that of many other people was her sticking to the unaffordable and unsustainable 2015 Defence Review as the only defence policy of the country, despite questions and motivations in the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, she was not prepared to even consider another policy between the 2015 Review and the current downward spiral to destruction.
“Her only solution is ‘more money’ to get the SANDF beyond milestone one, which we all know will not happen and cannot be afforded with our current very low Gross Domestic Product,” Marais said.
Looking back on her seven years to date in office Olivier said her tenure will be defined by four major actions – three bad and one good (the SEA task team).
“She aided then President Zuma’s unjustified attempt to acquire a new presidential aircraft, even claiming publicly the existing BBJ was old and unreliable. That simply wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now, as evidenced by President Ramaphosa using Inkwazi for nearly all his international trips the past year. Mapisa-Nqakula has never backtracked nor explained her original statements, even though they meant she went above and beyond merely executing Cabinet policy.
“She presided over a catastrophic decline in SANDF funding and capabilities during her term and has not been able to present any alternative solution other than continued ‘engagements’ with National Treasury that produced only a single useful outcome in the ring-fencing of UN peacekeeping reimbursements. That should have happened anyway given it was a reimbursement of money spent from DoD accounts.
“She is correct in stating the budget allocated to the SANDF is woefully inadequate for its size and missions, but for some reason has been unwilling to broach the idea of shrinking both despite her lack of success in getting her cabinet colleagues to agree on more defence spending. To be fair this is likely a result of pressure from SANDF top brass, who quite understandably would prefer not to have many SANDF capabilities removed, but as Minister she has a duty to use the civilian DoD secretariat and her ministerial staff in formulating policy even if it overrides the SANDF’s leadership.
“We have not seen enough of the urgency the situation demands, or enough public recognition of the extent to which force structure and policy are now far from budget realities. It is now at the point where new policy is overdue, starting with a fresh White Paper and possibly even to a new Defence Review.”
Olivier also maintains: “Mapisa-Nqakula’s time in office has been generally negative in terms of transparency and access to information. While her office has been better at providing information to Parliament’s oversight committees than her predecessor, since she took office the DoD has progressively and retroactively classified most useful performance indicators and reduced the level of detail in its annual reports to a point where effective public oversight of its actions and functions is extraordinarily difficult.
“One only needs to compare a DoD Annual Report from the beginning of her term with a later one to see how much information is either removed or hidden behind ‘classified’ labels over the years.
“She failed to halt the intense politicisation of Defence Intelligence during the Zuma years and that organisation’s overreach into other areas of the SANDF, to the entire organisation’s detriment. Air Force, Navy and Army tactical intelligence lost capabilities without replacement in inter-division turf wars over intelligence-gathering and Counter Intelligence asserted its control even over media relations.
“Additionally and something her predecessors also failed to do, document management, archival and declassification processes in the DoD remain a mess. It is underfunded and neglected, with consequences that will be regretted in the future,” Olivier said.
Marais said Mapisa-Nqakula will be remembered as being the minister under whose watch the SANDF deteriorated quickly without any “significant interjections”.
“The way the national defence force is going we might see our once proud SA Air Force downgraded to an air wing, our SA Navy become a water wing, our SA Army an employment safety net of medically unfit and non-combat ready soldiers and our three military hospitals unsustainable, unaffordable and totally underutilised white elephants. Even our exceptionally dependent Reserve Force is on the way to being a shadow of its former proud self and losing its enormous potential,” he said.
Since democracy, South Africa has had five ministers of defence and military veterans including Mapisa-Nqakula. The first was Joe Modise (five years) followed by Mosiuoa Lekota (nine years), Charles Nqakula (seven months) and Lindiwe Sisulu (three years).