Portfolio committee maintains Treasury out of touch on defence

2424

Making the South African military comply with Cabinet authorised budget and spending cuts is not in the best interests of the country’s defence capabilities, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) maintains.

This after Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana’s National Treasury (NT) roasted Minister Thandi Modise’s Department of Defence and Military Veterans (DoDMV) and its operating arm – the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) – in a presentation this week (Wednesday, 17 May). Among others, those responsible for holding government’s purse strings took exception to irregular expenditure, including a just on R3 billion overspend on salaries.

Reacting, PCDMV chair Cyril Xaba in a statement pointed out making the SANDF comply with NT regulations on curbing spending and budget cuts “appears to have not considered the defence force’s operational structure and requirements”. A Parliamentary Communication Services statement has him saying verbatim: “The PCDMV is of the view the decision to cap the CoE (Compensation of Employees) remains unimplementable and contributes to irregular expenditure, as to fund the shortfall the department must shift funds from operations and assets acquisition and maintenance. This impacts heavily on South Africa’s defence capabilities”.

It continues, again verbatim: “The committee is concerned about the arbitrariness of the decision, as it has started to impact negatively on the serviceability of prime mission equipment (PME), training and the general readiness of the defence force. It has a direct impact on the defence force’s ability to recruit annually for both regular and reserve force. As a consequence, it restricts its rejuvenation efforts”.

According to the statement Modise and her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, were both present and “felt” the NT directives “weakened the SANDF and put South Africa’s national security at risk”.

Xaba’s committee “welcomes prudent financial spending” with the rider that it should not result in “a shrinking defence force”. This in the light of factors including South Africa’s “increased population growth”, “the growing security threat posed by porous borders” and “regional instability”.

NT recommendations on “optimising internal spending” include staging Armed Forces Day (AFD) once every two years; “reconsidering the number of costly parades for promotions”; re-evaluating the continued maintenance of 44 attaché offices (which costs R320 million a year) and cutting travel spend, which amounts to R1.5 billion annually.

NT further recommended the SANDF manage overtime spending and other discretionary allowances; rationalise certain functions in corporate services such as avoiding duplication of functions like finance; dispose of assets that can generate revenue; and merge Armscor and Denel to save costs on corporate services.

As one outcome, the PCDMV recommends the DoD and NT “engage to find feasible ways of dealing with severe irregular expenditure and unsustainability of the CoE cap”. Both are to report back to the PCDMV in the third quarter.

Another outcome is the PCDMV meeting with NT on an as yet not scheduled date “to discuss the impact of budgetary constraints on PME and budget constraints”.

The PCDMV statement was issued a day after Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais came out with guns blazing against the apparent lack of control over SANDF spending.

The defence budget is shrinking in real terms, going from R54 billion in 2020/21 (bumped up then thanks to additional COVID-19 related interventions) to R48 billion in 2021/22; R54 billion in 2022/23 (including R2.9 billion not appropriated); and R51 billion in 2023/24. For 2024/25, R51 billion is allocated and in 2025/26 R53 billion has been allocated, insufficient to keep pace with inflation.

Although the SANDF has reduced personnel numbers by 2 833 between April 2022 and March 2023 (down to a total of 69 358), NT maintains it has not seen a “discernible impact on CoE”, partly because the SANDF is spending money on implementing its exit mechanism. R1.8 billion was allocated last year for the Mobility Exit Mechanism (MEM) over the next three years.