More openness needed from the SANDF on deployments


It’s apparently either “policy” or “practice” in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) not to make public the names of deployed regiments and units but surely this should not happen when as now, a national state of disaster is in force?

Since South Africans had their first taste of what is officially the coronavirus pandemic last month, from the Wuhan repatriation mission to the internal deployment of close to three thousand military personnel, all they are told is “soldiers” and “military medical personnel” are involved.

In the best interests of defence in a democracy and building both esprit de corps and pride in the country’s military, defenceWeb asked for the names of the units involved in the Wuhan mission. This was given short shrift by the SANDF Corporate Communications Directorate with the brusque response it isn’t policy to release unit names when deployed in the interests of security.

A similar response came from the SA Army, the largest component of the SANDF, when asked for the names of Reserve Force units called up to assist with the national lockdown.

Given that 52 SA Army Reserve Force units and regiments underwent name changes last August, the current situation provides an opportunity for at least some of them to put these into the public space.

Defence analyst Helmoed Heitman sees no problem with South Africans being told which units/regiments and from which service are deployed, especially when it comes to humanitarian missions and taskings.

“My thinking is the national defence force would want to highlight the contribution units are making, to make the point they are doing it and for their own morale,” he said with the caveat that “no-one appears to be drawing a distinction between a wartime and a humanitarian operation”.

“In time of war or impending serious conflict there will be reasons for not disclosing what various units are doing. Even then it will not always be necessary. I could make a case for not revealing names of units deployed for border security or anti-gang operations until after completion of their deployment to prevent attempts to bribe members or threaten their families,” Heitman said in partial justification of the “policy/practice” currently in place at the SANDF.

While deployment of the air force and navy is generally easy to establish, either by knowing which squadrons do what or which platform of a small fleet is not in harbour, landward deployments can be confirmed with a minimum of effort.

Take the South African commitment to the UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo (DRC) as an example. Ahead of deployment the selected unit undergoes jungle training in Eastern Cape’s Port St Johns area after which it reports to the Mobilisation Centre at De Brug outside Bloemfontein and this information is readily accessible. Similarly there is no great secrecy attached to which units are deployed on the border protection tasking, Operation Corona.