South Africa needs stronger defence force to deal with threats like Mozambique’s insurgency

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At the moment the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is overburdened and will have to pick and choose where it deploys to due to its limited budget and shrunken capabilities, experts have warned.

Speaking at defenceWeb’s Countering the Insurgency in Mozambique online event this week, Thomas Mandrup, Associate Professor at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA), told some 200 event participants that the South African National Defence Force is overburdened and underfunded.

Instead of the SANDF focussing its attention on national security tasks like responding to the crisis in Mozambique, it is also tasked with doing police work, such as responding to the riots in KwaZulu-Natal in July; border protection; and other tasks that take away from its defence capabilities and resources.

Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister and MP Kobus Marais said that although South Africa has obvious economic interests in Mozambique, including a planned Sasol pipeline to Gauteng, South African defence priorities should start with “protecting our nation’s borders from the illegal crossing of people and substances. Any involvement in Cabo Delgado and the Democratic Republic of Congo can’t compromise on what we do first.”

Marais warned that the SANDF cannot carry the cost of deployments to places like Mozambique on its own as this will compromise South Africa’s defence capabilities, including prime mission equipment.

Although up to 1 500 SANDF personnel have been authorised to deploy to Mozambique, less than 300 Special Forces have actually been deployed, with the main task of collecting intelligence as well as resupply and logistics support, mainly to Rwandan and Mozambican forces.

He noted a lack of comprehensive maritime support to the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) – “we know insurgents are using the seas to transport people, weapons etc. They are using a sea route into Cabo Delgado.” The SA Navy did send an offshore patrol vessel to Pemba, but this returned to South Africa in late October.

There are few other serviceable vessels that can be sent to places like the Mozambique Channel. John Stupart, Director at African Defence Review, reminded participants that the SANDF’s defunct Project Millenium looked at the procurement of an amphibious assault ship, which “would have been an absolute game changer for Mozambique.” However, due to a lack of funding this never went anywhere.

Marais believes the SANDF needs comprehensive air support for operations like Mozambique and although the helicopter squadrons are doing “outstanding work,” the transport fleet (notably the C-130 Hercules) remains a “major concern.” Much of its aircraft are unserviceable.

If South Africa does not do something drastic, there is a danger of losing its defence capabilities due to underfunding, Marais warned. “If we don’t urgently address decays in the defence force, from intelligence to maritime to cyber and satellite technology and prime mission equipment, if we are not reprioritising, we will have major problems going into the future.”

Mandrup agreed, pointing out that the SANDF had planned for 2% of GDP to go towards defence whereas it’s less than 1% now, with much of that spent on salaries. “The SANDF today is an employment solution,” he said, with the main goal of securing jobs for South Africans.

The SANDF has good officers trying to make ends meet and they have resorted to cannibalising and mothballing equipment but capacity is being lost. “This is a political problem. The government needs to make political reform possible, and funding. We need a smaller, more agile force to meet foreign policy goals.”

Stupart believes the SANDF can respond to emergencies like the KwaZulu-Natal unrest, but “we are at a point where we have to pick and choose who and where goes what, for example we were taking tanks to stabilisation patrols within South Africa, which is frankly insane.”



He told event attendees that South Africa needs to remain prepared for conflict to avoid finding itself in a situation like Mozambique does. He said the Mozambican government effectively outsourced its initial counter-insurgency efforts to first the Wagner Group and then Dyck Advisory Group and now the Rwandans and has been trying to quickly rearm and upskill after years of neglecting its military. “If we do not prepare for war in ten years’ time, we will be scrambling then as well,” Stupart said.