Soldiers employed, not deployed, on coronavirus duty


As public noise around the use of the military to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control escalates, it is wise to heed the words of respected defence analyst Helmoed Heitman.

He points out the Presidential letter authorising the use of more than 73 000 uniformed personnel refers to “employment” of the national defence force rather than “deployment”.

“I see this as a case of contingency planning, to allow additional troops from any unit in any part of the country to be deployed promptly if needed without having to jump through the normal hoops required for an internal deployment. That makes sense as it gives considerable flexibility to deal with situations that might arise or even to deploy troops to work with screening teams,” he said.

Further light – not much – was shone on the employment/deployment of what appears to be almost the entire the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as well as a Reserve Force and an auxiliary (volunteers). This came from Department of Defence (DoD) head of communication, Siphiwe Dlamini, in a two paragraph statement. The statement was issued after the apparent leaking of the Presidential letter authorising further use of the military in the national anti-coronavirus effort put in place by the declaration of a National State of Disaster.

The statement has it that “a contingency plan has been put in place to mitigate spread of the virus”.

“This,” the statement adds, “is part of the total government scenario planning, taking into consideration worldwide trends and our own scientific analysis and experience.

“Various skills in the SANDF will be deployed in support of other government departments to deal decisively with contingencies that might arise. In the main, it will capacitate engineering, healthcare and logistics capabilities.”

Following a scheduled meeting on Wednesday, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) issued a statement to support Ramaphosa’s decision.

“The committee considered a number of letters from the President on employment of the SANDF. The President is compelled in terms of the Constitution and a section of the Defence Act to inform Parliament regarding the reasons, place, number of soldiers, cost involved, as well as the period of employment, to which Parliament must apply its mind and express its view.

“The committee is satisfied by the reasons given and the necessity to employ an additional 73 180 members of the SANDF in the fight against the spread of the COVID-19 virus, particularly in light of information that South Africa is still in the early stages of the pandemic,” the statement reads.

It goes on to quote committee co-chair Cyril Xaba as saying: “Of critical importance is the deployment of the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) and its capabilities, necessary to support the Department of Health when considering the trajectory of infections expected as per research by experts”.

The JSCD notes the deployment is large and has “huge financial implications”, said to be more than R4.5 billion. “The cost implications are necessary in the context of the unprecedented nature of the disease which demands an extraordinary response.”

Xaba said the committee was aware of some cost drivers including procurement of personal protective equipment, equipment for testing and analysis and preparation of field hospitals – all necessary to protect SANDF members and fight the disease. “The safety of SANDF members is paramount and no cost should be spared to protect the lives of South Africans and SANDF members,” Xaba said.

Most of the R4,5 billion will be salaries normally drawn by  SANDF personnel with a slight increase in spending on subsistence and travel (S&T) and other costs. Calling up Reserves will also cost extra.

Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader Pieter Groenewald asked if the national defence force, even with its Reserve Force capability, can “make more than 73 000 soldiers available”.

As to strength, the last defence budget gave a total personnel strength of 74 901, which includes about 12 000 civilians, according to Heitman. “The reserves have about 15 000 active members. Adding those and subtracting the troops in the DRC and other elements and allowing for personnel shrinkage since the budget we get something similar to the 73 180 mentioned in the letter. That is the entire SANDF, which makes the key word ‘employment’ rather than ‘deployment’. If I am correct we are looking at a situation unprecedented since the 1994 election deployment but not a similar actual deployment of troops.”

According to Groenewald, “This deployment comes down to a state of emergency in South Africa and the Disaster Management Act is exploited to bypass constitutional requirements for a state of emergency. In terms of Section 37 of the Constitution, there needs to be strict parliamentary oversight in a state of emergency, but in terms of the Disaster Management Act, there is almost no oversight.

“This is a serious flaw the FF+ will address by introducing a Private Member’s Bill to the National Disaster Management Act in Parliament,” he said in a statement.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the JSCD field hospitals “might” have to be positioned. According to Business Day, the just on three thousand soldiers initially deployed “were well below the requirements of the challenge”. IOL reported her as saying on radio “if South Africans die in huge numbers from coronavirus, the defence force will be there to collect the bodies. They will put up big mortuaries where scores of dead people will be kept. When the need arises the SANDF will be there to build mortuaries in areas where there may not be any,” she said adding “big trucks” were available to ferry corpses to cemeteries.

This is a far cry from the alarmist statement by Civil Society C-19 Coalition when soldiers were first put to work supporting police in enforcing lockdown regulations. It read, in part: “We see military tanks and guns rolling into our communities”.