The decline of South Africa’s defence industry


The arrival of democracy in South Africa has not been kind to the country’s defence industry which has seen a drop in turnover of more R12 billion from 1989/90 when it stood at R31,6 billion to last year’s R19 billion (measured in 2016 Rand value) according to the draft Defence Industry Strategy document.

The more than 200 page document which is currently circulating for comment and input points out that with the exception of the 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement Packages (SDPPs) and “a small number of major projects the erosion of defence funding in real terms has continued since then with government funds channelled to address real and urgent socio-economic needs”.

After 2001, South Africa took on regional and continental security obligations and this resulted in what the document calls “a disconnect” between defence funding and operational commitments.
“This means the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is under-funded and lacks adequate funds for modernisation, capital acquisition, research and development and even for adequate maintenance, repair and overhaul of equipment and systems.”

The effect on the South African defence industry has been, according to the document, “dramatic” with SANDF acquisition dropping from R26,2 billion in 1989/60 to R7 billion in 2017. Research and development funding has declined from R6,1 billion in 1989/90 to R850 million in 2017. Figures are in 2017 Rand value.

Even more worrying, as unemployment seems to continually be on the rise in South Africa, the document indicates there were “some 130 000 employees in three thousand companies (in the local defence industry) in 1990 to around 15 000 employees in 120 companies at present”.
“Coupled to this has been a considerable loss of both breadth and depth of capabilities, although the core of capabilities remains intact for now,” according to the document.

It also points out under-funding of the SANDF has meant the country’s military machine has lacked funds to invest adequately in the development of new equipment and systems to modernise and upgrade capabilities.
“Very restricted acquisition funding has resulted in tight budgets in industry with very limited internal funds for equipment development.”

The biggest loser in this regard is the SA Army with most of its prime mission equipment “becoming obsolescent or even obsolete and key capability gaps emerging just as it is set to face more challenging tasks”. A lack of close-in anti-tank bunker weapons, air defence systems, air transportable combat and logistic vehicles and logistic vehicles to support mechanised forces are given as example of what the landward force needs.

The SA Air Force (SAAF) lacks a full range of precision weapons for fighters and combat helicopters, has no “serious maritime operations capability” as well as no airlift to support regional missions such as the African Standby Force (ASF) and the African Capability for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC).

The maritime service of the SANDF lacks adequate numbers of ships to meet current and envisioned regional commitment and lacks sealift to support regional missions according to the document.