SA’s VIP protection spending ‘a questionable allocation of resources’ in light of defence cut


South Africa, a nation grappling with pressing economic challenges and social disparities, finds itself at a crossroads. As the government grapples with fiscal constraints and the need to allocate resources efficiently, concerns are taking centre stage about the exorbitant spending on VIP protection at the expense of other requirements like defence. 

In a thought-provoking Twitter thread, African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier highlighted the stark contrast in spending between VIP protection and vital defence capabilities. “South Africa spends more than three times as much on VIP protection than it does on the entire combat air capability of the SANDF [South African National Defence Force], including the Hawks, Gripens, and Rooivalks,” he pointed out.

The numbers are revealing. Olivier stated the government is for the 2023 financial year spending R3.4 billion on mobile and static VIP protection, including R1.7 billion on mobile VIP protection, dwarfing the R2.25 billion allocated to the Hawks, a crucial crime-fighting unit. 

In comparison, for the 2024/25 financial year, R500 million of the defence budget is allocated to the Air Force’s Air Comat Capability. The helicopter capability, meanwhile, is allocated R768 million in 2024/25 and the Transport and Maritime Capability R807 million.

With regard to the spending on VIP protection, Olivier told eNCA: “I do believe this is excessive for the need. This is a lot of money considering how many people there are involved, how many VIPs there are to protect. It certainly can’t be sustained in my view. It’s already way too high. 

“On the other hand, we’re underspending on air combat – actually the entire defence force, particularly the Air Force. We spend on average R500 million a year on the Gripens and Hawks and approximately another R60 million a year on the Rooivalk – this is far too small. To actually fund a modern fighter squadron – or actually two of them of this size – you need at least double or triple that amount of money. Now, that’s not reasonable but R500 million is definitely far too low – that’s why you’re seeing issues like aircraft being grounded for a year while there were issues trying to sign a new contract; that’s why you’re seeing such low levels of availability and capability. The aircraft are not currently able to do all missions that they’re required to do. 

“This is not just true for the Gripen and Hawk, this is true for the entire Air Force. There’s not a single type in the Air Force that’s currently operating at an optimal level – they are all at very low levels of availability, at very low levels of capability…we’re past the point of crisis. Essentially at this point we are going to lose certain capabilities and they cannot be recovered unless there’s an unreasonable level of funding. It’s really important for us to be realistic about this now,” he said in the eNCA interview.

Olivier pointed out that the expenditure on VIP protection is nearly double what the SANDF allocates to maintain its entire Special Forces capability and exceeds the cost of all internal deployments, including border patrol.

“It’s actually even worse than stated above. This year’s SA Police Service budget pushes the VIP Protection Services allocation to nearly R2 billion. Incidentally the SANDF is reportedly set for a R1.9 billion budget cut this year, further harming capabilities,” Olivier warned.

Wayne Duvenage, CEO of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), has called for a rigorous audit to scrutinize the allocation of VIP protection funds, questioning the disproportionate distribution of resources. “Why are we spending so much in comparison to what we spend on the Hawks?” Duvenage inquired.

Loss of trust

The recent incident involving members of Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s VIP protection team assaulting motorists on the N1 highway in Johannesburg further underscores the urgency of this issue. The video of this incident went viral on social media, sparking a nationwide debate about the so-called “blue light brigades” and their unchecked powers. Duvenage questioned the privilege these protection units seem to enjoy, emphasizing the need for substantial consequences for their actions.

The erosion of trust in the government is a pressing concern. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that South Africans trust businesses and NGOs far more than the government. With a 40-point difference in trust between business and government, only 22% of South Africans place their trust in the government. Magda Wierzycka, Sygnia co-founder and CEO, has added her voice to the chorus of critics, highlighting the absurdity of spending around R2 billion annually to protect 280 government officials when those funds could be better utilized to protect whistleblowers and individuals working to safeguard South Africa’s interests.

The looming election has further complicated matters for the African National Congress (ANC). While it faces the challenge of reduced government spending, President Cyril Ramaphosa has the opportunity to implement significant changes within both the government and the party. According to Daily Maverick, President Ramaphosa is considering reducing the number of government departments and state-owned enterprises, aligning with his promise to streamline government operations.

One litmus test of the ANC’s commitment to effective governance is its spending on the VIP Protection Unit compared to other critical units like the Hawks. A substantial reduction in VIP protection expenses could demonstrate a genuine dedication to serving the public and optimizing resource allocation.

Behind the scenes, the ANC is also undergoing internal reforms. The Electoral Committee, led by former President Kgalema Motlanthe, is scrutinizing candidates, ensuring individuals facing criminal charges or implicated in findings from the Zondo Commission are not considered for positions. These processes may usher in significant changes within the government and the ANC, but whether they lead to real transformation remains to be seen.

In a country where trust in the government is diminishing, the allocation of resources demands careful scrutiny. The exorbitant spending on VIP protection, at the expense of other critical needs, is a matter that cannot be ignored. South Africa’s future hinges on wise resource allocation, transparency, and accountability, elements that must be at the forefront of any political agenda.