Thandi Modise is South Africa’s new defence minister


Former speaker of the National Assembly Thandi Modise has replaced Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula as South Africa’s defence minister. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the move after a Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday night, which saw a shakeup of the security cluster.

Modise brings defence experience to the portfolio, having been a member of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and chairing two parliamentary committees on defence.

Outgoing Mapisa-Nqakula landed in hot water recently when she contradicted Ramaphosa in saying the violent unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal was not an insurrection but a counter-revolution. She later did an about-turn and concurred with the President. Her image was also tarnished by her trip to Zimbabwe last year when she gave ANC members a ‘lift’.

Ramaphosa, in his first Cabinet reshuffle, said Mapisa-Nqakula, will be deployed elsewhere but did not specify where. “We thank her for service to the nation and dedication to her responsibilities,” the President said. She served as defence minister since 2012.

Other changes to the security cluster include intelligence minister Ayanda Dlodlo moving back to her old post as Public Service and Administration minister. The Ministry of State Security has been done away with and responsibility for the State Security Agency now resides under the Presidency, which experts have cautioned could be problematic. Dlodlo’s deputy, Zizi Kodwa, is now deputy minister in the Presidency responsible for state security.

Ramaphosa has appointed Dr Sydney Mufumadi as his national security adviser. He replaces Charles Nqakula, who had occupied the post until earlier this year.

The President’s security sector shakeup includes the appointment of a three-person panel of experts led by Professor Sandy Africa, and supported by Mojanku Gumbi and Silumko Sokupa.

In his announcement, Ramaphosa told the nation that “we are working to ensure peace and stability in the wake of the recent outbreak of violence and destruction in parts of the country,” and his Cabinet changes are a reflection of this and other priorities, including vaccine rollout and rebuilding the economy.

In announcing the doing away of the Ministry of State Security, Ramaphosa said this “is to ensure that the country’s domestic and foreign intelligence services more effectively enable the President to exercise his responsibility to safeguard the security and integrity of the nation.”

Defence expert and Director at African Defence Review, Darren Olivier, believes this is a huge step. “Maybe it’s even necessary given current circumstances. But in the long term it’s a terrible move that will centralise more power in the presidency, reduce accountability and oversight, and increase the harm future presidents with malevolent intentions could do.”

Security was one of Ramaphosa’s main themes in his reshuffle address. He noted that it has been three weeks since the country experienced an orchestrated campaign of public violence, destruction and sabotage.

“I wish to once again commend the brave actions of our security forces on the ground, who were faced with a difficult situation and exercised commendable restraint to prevent any loss of life or further escalation. While calm has been restored to the affected areas and our law enforcement agencies are working hard to bring those responsible to justice, we have acknowledged that our security services were found wanting in several respects.

“As part of the critical measures we are undertaking to strengthen our security services and to prevent a recurrence of such events, I am appointing an expert panel to lead a thorough and critical review of our preparedness and the shortcomings in our response,” he said.

“The panel will examine all aspects of our security response and will make recommendations on strengthening our capabilities. To improve support to the President and the National Security Council in the strategic management of the country’s security, I am appointing Dr Sydney Mufamadi as National Security Adviser.”

Modise brings defence experience

As a former MK officer and defence committee chair, Modise understands the role of the military and the Department of Defence and why it needs to be properly resourced, but it is not clear if she will be able to persuade National Treasury for more funding. Her appointment comes the South African National Defence Force faces big deployments in and outside its borders. Up to 25 000 members are employed under Operation Prosper internally and up to 1 495 have been authorised to be deployed to Mozambique under the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique.

Prior to being appointed defence minister, Modise was the Speaker of the National Assembly from 22 May 2019 to 5 August 2021. Previously she was the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces from 22 May 2014 and served as Premier of the North West from November 2010 to May 2014.

Between 1999 and 2004, Modise served as Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence from 1998 to 2004.

Modise left South Africa in 1976 to join the African National Congress and received training in Angola. She returned to South Africa in 1978 as an Umkhonto weSizwe operative. She was arrested and imprisoned in 1979 and spent eight years in prison. She was elected as a Member of Parliament of the Republic of South Africa in 1994-2004 and served as the Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC from 2007 to 2012. She also served as a member of its National Executive Committee.

Some of her defence-related career highlights include participating in peace-building activities such as a peace mission to stabilise regions such as East Timor, and civil-military roundtables in Nigeria and Ghana. She has also highlighted women’s roles in negotiations and conflict resolution in Rwanda and Burundi.

She was a member of the inclusive Security: Women Waging Peace Policy Commission; a member of the Board of Ilitha la Bathu and a member of the Board of International Security Studies.