Opinion: Time to press the re-set button as defence industry ready and willing to drive positive change

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As South Africa this week faced the worst civil unrest we have seen in years, it is becoming ever clearer that our country needs to press the re-set button on some of our current thinking.

Most of the country looked on in horror as riots in Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng, which began from politically motivated intentions, moved into the criminal realm via the looting of businesses and cargo trucks; the blockading of key arterial transport routes; and the targeting of individuals through intimidation, victimisation and even death.

The Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association (AMD), a grouping of aerospace and defence manufacturers, supports the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to quell the outbreaks of civil disobedience, in support of the police services and society in general. At the same time, we note that the SANDF exists primarily to serve the people of South Africa – no longer is it the armed wing of an unlawful and unconstitutional government, but rather an asset, which exists to defend its law-abiding citizens and offer them support in times of need.

Recently, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI), Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry were just some of the many organisations raising their voices to condemn the looting, intimidation, damage to property and loss of life that we have seen over the past few days. All of these criminal activities have deep repercussions on both the country as a whole, as well as on individual and community lives.

The economic damage, to date, is reported countrywide (conservatively) as being over R500 million and rising, and ‘SA Inc’ has further experienced a drop in the value of the currency, as well as disruptions to businesses across multiple sectors, because of the threat to logistics. With cross-country trucks and drivers grounded at least temporarily for their safety, supplies from foodstuffs to electronics to fuel are all threatened.

The deployed, or soon to be deployed, SANDF soldiers are ably equipped by the South African Defence Industry, and this is a responsibility that we take very seriously. It is in our collective interest that our soldiers are always correctly equipped for every mission that they are sent on. Their deployment in the assistance of the SAPS further strengthens the point we have always made that economic prosperity and development cannot be divorced from security stability.

Here in the AMD, our members also exist to serve and protect the greater community at large. We believe that, while real criminal elements certainly seem to be involved in the recent unrest, many of the looters appear to be opportunistic rather than innately criminal individuals, taking advantage of the situation to supplement their day-to-day economic paucity.

This is offered as an explanation and not to condone this behaviour.

Nonetheless, it must be remembered that the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures that our government has implemented, of necessity to try to quell the spread of this terrible disease, have unfortunately wrought even further havoc with South Africa’s economy, and with individual lives as a consequence.

This is where the AMD believes that it is time to re-set South Africa’s thinking on its aerospace, maritime and defence industries, which are currently playing an important yet largely un-sung role in South Africa’s economy and civil society, but with enormous potential to drive even more positive change.

For historical reasons, transformation remains a very sensitive topic in our sector and it is still a work in progress. However, our transformation charter, which was implemented two years ago, is helping to move the sector steadily forward. Over the past 10 years or so, we have seen an improvement in terms of making changes to reflect the demographics of the population.

The value, both existing and potential, of South Africa’s defence sector to our economy is enormous. Civil society is aware that the defence sector exists to provide sovereign security, but people may not always be aware that the offering is so much more than this. The technology required in this sector is able to drive other innovations which, sooner or later, can have a positive effect on civilian life.

For example, the internet today exists because it was originally part of a defence initiative in America, as does the GPS feature on our smart phones, which allows us to easily navigate our way to places previously unknown or unfamiliar to us.

From a local perspective, the technology in South Africa’s defence sector has allowed the country to remain globally competitive for decades, and this helps to cushion the economy from needing to import certain technologies, while also creating jobs. Within our local communities, people may not realise that the SASSA social grant payment system is secured and operated because of technology that has been developed within the defence sector.

The aerospace, maritime and defence industries are tremendously innovative and there is a huge role they can play in local job creation, partly because of the technology that is intrinsic to this sector of the economy. In this time of need, the AMD believes that our industries can assist with job creation in a very real way.

In short, the aerospace, maritime and defence industries are ready, willing and waiting to play an even greater role in South Africa’s future and to assist in building up its further prosperity, for the greater good of all.

Written by Sandile Ndlovu, Acting Executive Director: AMD.