Parliament shines spotlight on civil-military relationship

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Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) held successful colloquium last week on civil-military relations (CMR).

Cyril Xaba, Chairperson of the PCDMV, said civil-military relations are continuously evolving. “We believe that our CMR status needs to be rigorously interrogated on a continuous basis, which is one of the reasons why (this newly constituted) Portfolio Committee has identified this issue for a colloquium.”

On a continent where coup d’états are common, the professionalism of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is key for it being trusted as a guard of the Constitution and territorial integrity. It is a balancing act between a military that is not too civilianised and civilian oversight that is not too militaristic.

The South African Constitution, mainly through Parliamentary oversight, provides for layers of civilian control and oversight to protect citizens from a military that drifts away from professionalism, the colloquium heard. Debate between politicians, military officials and academics ensued.

In her keynote address, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, noted the new South Africa is characterised by sound civil-military relations. “This is quite unlike the system that preceded us,” she said, “where the military took on a burden of politics that it should not have needed to do.”

Following the transition to a democracy, the new South African National Defence Force and Department of Defence (DOD) was established with a structure designed to ensure sound and robust civil-military relations.

The Defence Amendment Act of 1995 provides for a DOD comprising the new SANDF and a civilian Defence Secretariat. The Minister is responsible for the defence function of government and is accountable to the President, the Cabinet and Parliament. The Minister constitutes the elected civil authority on military matters on behalf of Cabinet.

The Secretary for Defence is responsible to the Minister in determining strategic direction, accountability and oversight, including defence acquisition. The Secretary for Defence provides the Minister with legal services (excluding the Military Justice System) including legislation, litigation and legal advice. The secretary also engages with defence stakeholders and manages intra-governmental liaison.

The Chief of the SANDF (CSANDF) executes defence policy, directs the work of Defence Headquarters and manages the overall functioning and operations of the Defence Force. CSANDF is the principal adviser to the Minister on military, operational and administrative matters.

In determining the functions of the Secretariat and Defence Headquarters, firstly, civilians formulate defence policy and the military executes this policy and secondly, civilians are responsible for the political dimensions of defence.

A key feature of democratic civil-military relations, Mapisa-Nqakula explained, is the inviolability of the principle of civil control over the armed forces. “This is reflected in the primacy afforded to Parliament in approving the finances of the armed forces, the legislation governing the activities of the armed forces and the approval of the policy framework within which the armed forces will function.”

Additional mechanisms include the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD), Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans and other committees in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and various financial oversight bodies.

The Portfolio Committee on Defence is responsible for monitoring, scrutinising and investigating defence business. Subsequently, it makes recommendations on the functions, budgetary allocations, rationalisation and restructuring of the defence organisational structure, policy formulation and any other relevant matters.

A central theme that emerged during the colloquium was that a clear gap exists in the current status of civil-military relations.

Whilst some commentators argued that the main source of the widening gap stems from civilian ignorance of the military, the counter argument for a military more attuned to the civilian accountability process was made.

Lieutenant General Vusumuzi Masondo, the SANDF’s Chief of Staff, explained that the Military Justice System “is there to support the commanders,” but lamented the challenges faced by the SANDF with respect to the ultimate oversight of civilian courts and the presence of trade unions within the SANDF. “A military institution is by its nature an autocratic institution,” Masondo explained, “Because otherwise, if it was not for that, it would not be able to discharge its mandate.”

Stellenbosch University professor Lindy Heinecken said the widening gap between civil society and the military consisted of the Connectivity Gap (institutional and policy gaps) and Cultural Gap. The Cultural Gap includes discord between the military and civil society, recruitment issues (employer of last resort) and maintaining of the relevance of the military. Causes of the gap include the invisibility of the military, lack of understanding the roles and functions of the military and the deterioration of the relationship between the military and the media.

Dr Wilhelm Janse van Rensburg of the Parliamentary Research Unit said that “integrated, comprehensive parliamentary oversight, with input from external stakeholders can play a central role in bridging the growing civil-military gap.”

Communication between civil society and the military needs to improve, with the military often accused of being too secretive, something which even Mapisa-Nqakula acknowledged.

Xaba concluded that South Africa has healthy civil military relations (albeit with challenges) but “we should not take this status for granted and there seems to be a growing civil military gap that requires our competent attention.”



Despite the CMR challenges experienced in South Africa, Masondo proudly stated: “Testimony of the professionalism of the SANDF can be seen in the fact that in our country, two presidents have been recalled without the military intervening. If that is not proof enough of the professionalism of the SANDF, I don’t know what will be.”