Analysis: A friend in need – A call for rejuvenating US-South African defence relations


With its emerging emphasis on strategic competition, the United States must focus on renewing its engagement with potential allies on the African continent.

The rise of insurgencies in West and East Africa, the geostrategic importance of natural resources from the continent, and the ability to provide a credible alternative to China that offers African countries the freedom to self-determine their economic futures necessitates a new approach towards African countries as vital and enduring economic and security partners. The countries across the world that have proven most capable of sustaining such mutually-beneficial partnerships—for their regions and for themselves—have been regional powers like Japan, India, and Brazil. Expanding these sorts of partnerships with regional powers in Africa should continue to be the model for American engagement on the continent.

Recent US engagement in Africa, strongly shaped by the Global War on Terror’s prerogatives, has in the past primarily focused on two regions: West Africa and the Horn. The United States defence establishment easily made the case for engagement in these regions because of the presence of the Islamist groups of the Sahel (ISWAP) and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Even more recently, though, between violence in the Eastern Congo, civil war in the Central African Republic, and a complex insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique, Central and Southern Africa have also faced both localized violence and region-wide instability. However, while US Africa Command (AFRICOM) engages with threats in West Africa and the Horn by, with, and through regional partners, the same capability eludes AFRICOM in Southern Africa. This is not because Southern Africa lacks a regional power that AFRICOM can engage with, like Nigeria in West Africa or, until recently, Ethiopia in the Horn. South Africa is the region’s security and economic anchor and offers greater advantages as a partner to cooperatively achieve regional peace and stability. South Africa is a middle-income country with democratic institutions, a permanent professional army, local defence industry, and a blue water navy.

Despite South Africa’s qualities and the advantages a closer security arrangement might bring to both parties, a constructive partnership has not emerged. While there are historical and structural reasons for this, we argue that whereas a series of crises within South Africa’s defence establishment has long created the need for an external partner, this is now accompanied by the rise of moderate political leadership within the country’s ruling party that may seek alternatives to dependence on China, this combination provides the United States with a unique opportunity to establish a mutually beneficial defence partnership with South Africa.


The modern South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF) arose from the need to reincorporate the defence forces of South Africa after the apartheid regime fell. The old South Africa Defence Forces (SADF), while a potent regional actor, was segregated and viewed by Black South Africans and regional countries as the apartheid government’s armed wing. The formation of the post-apartheid military, overseen by the African National Congress (ANC), integrated legacy members of South African Defence Force with the security forces of various native homelands and those of liberation groups like the African National Congress and the smaller Pan-African Congress. This new composite military, called the South African National Defence Force, distanced itself from the old apartheid-era military, pledging to defend the new, inclusive state.

While the United States was initially eager to establish defence relationships with the now-African National Congress led state, there were already factors working against such a partnership. The United States was perceived as a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime that ANC had waged a decades-long struggle against, leading to initial suspicion by ANC leaders. These suspicions were exacerbated by continued American prosecution of the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (ARMSCOR) for apartheid-era infractions, despite the new government’s reliance on Armaments Corporation of South Africa and its successor Denel for military material and employment. The tensions stemming from these issues and diplomatic missteps dampened South African enthusiasm for American defence initiatives like the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI). While defence relations were seemingly improving—following the transition of African Crisis Response Initiative to the African Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA), the normalization of defence relations, and the engagement of the United States with HIV-AIDS issues in the SANDF beginning in 2004—South Africa’s domestic politics made these gains short lived.

African National Congress governments, especially since President Mbeki, were never positive towards an American defence relationship. The emergence of AFRICOM brought to fore tensions in 2007. The United States established AFRICOM as a new cooperative type of Combatant Command and hoped that South Africa, as an increasingly friendly regional power, could engage in the larger questions of the placement of the command. Instead, South Africa led the charge against placing AFRICOM on the continent and Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota refused to meet with the announced first commander of the Command. The South African viewpoint was largely that Africans needed to be able to produce African solutions and that direct American involvement was unlikely to solve Africa’s problems.

This coolness endures, with both the Mbeki and Zuma administrations unresponsive to United States’ defence entreaties. There are still occasional personnel exchanges through the International Military Education and Training program (IMET), partnerships to help with AIDS/HIV issues, and occasional aid with border control issues, but such engagements are limited. South Africa even held aloof from the larger military exercises that the United States hosts on the continent, with the last limited engagement being at the 2017 Shared Accord exercises held at the South African Army Combat Training Center in Lohatla. Despite hope that these exercises would continue if not expand over the years, South Africa has not participated in American-hosted exercises since.


Given such estrangement, why would South Africa now be open to a security partnership? The answer is two intertwined issues that change the previous defence context for South Africa. The first is that the South African National Defence Force now faces a deep crisis. This is no revelation for observers from the South African defence community. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the SANDF has confronted many challenges. From the fractious process of integrating the legacy membership of the apartheid-era SADF with the military structures of the homeland armed forces and the liberation forces like Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the armed forces made political calculations favouring stability and inclusion over potential effectiveness. This transition was also marked by a series of early arms acquisition scandals, further complicating the military’s transition to new readiness standards.


These challenges were noted, and efforts made to provide a sustainable path to effectiveness in the 1998 and 2015 National Defence Reviews. Regional experts lauded the 2015 Defence Review as “a new plan to halt the downward spiral of the SA Defence Forces.” The review presented a series of agreed-upon domestic and regional missions for the SANDF and a series of milestones by which progress towards goals could be measured by the defence establishment. However, despite great expectations, the Ministry of Defence found itself increasingly unable to achieve even the more modest goals of the Defence Review, and by 2018 observers declared the review a dead letter.

If the South African National Defence Force was previously weak and occasionally adrift, a recent series of crises have pushed the defence establishment to the breaking point. In terms of financing, much of the defence infrastructure has been undermined. Sustainment capabilities that once existed within the military have been hollowed out, leaving the SANDF reliant on the African National Congress leaders’ Cold War-era ties to keep equipment in the field. Local commanders reportedly instructed their units to borrow replacements from neighboring units, admitting new equipment is probably not coming. The SANDF has downgraded or cancelled critical exercises. The local defence industry is moribund: it is now challenging for the once innovative and renowned Denel Dynamics to make a fraction of its payroll because of unpaid contracts.

This dangerous weakening of capacity happened even as more has been asked of the armed forces both regionally and within South Africa. While the South African National Defence Force has been a valuable contributor to the Force Intervention Brigade in the Eastern Congo, their power projection capabilities have noticeably declined since then. The small force sent to the Central African Republic for stability operations was limited by South Africa’s ability to sustain forces at a distance. Although the force acquitted itself well in the subsequent unplanned armed clash with Seleka rebels, the casualties sustained led to inquiries about the mission’s planning and execution.

Finally, even with global attention on the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the South African National Defence Force did not initiate or drive the process for a Southern African Development Community (SADC) Force. Only after Rwanda’s rapid and potent response did SADC spring into action. And, while SANDF provided the overall commander, it has only provided an advance party of Special Forces. Part of this is admittedly due to South Africa’s recent internal crises in the KwaZulu Natal province, where rioting and looting erupted following the arrest of ex-President Jacob Zuma. To deal with the outbreak of violence, the South African government deployed 25,000 SANDF personnel to the region. However, to achieve even this deployment whole reserve units needed calling up. Simply put, while the South African National Defence Force has been adrift for a while, the recent regional and local emergencies have strained the South African armed forces to the limits of their manpower and materiel. A helping hand now from a capable partner might make the difference between effectively rejuvenating the SANDF or needing to completely rebuild it.

This crisis of military capacity is interestingly happening at the same time as the political order in South Africa is undergoing an understated change. The previous President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was cool towards dealings with the United States. He and his political allies in the left-flank of the ruling ANC aligned with China, seeking significant strategic and economic partnerships with Xi’s government. However, Zuma was removed from his leadership position in the ANC in 2017 and voted out of the Presidency in 2018 under corruption charges. While he retained influence, particularly in his home province, the eruption of violence there following his arrest may have marginalized his political followers within the national-level ANC. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa has proven more moderate. While he maintains the rhetoric of strategic partnership with China, he has also looked to balance his relationships as opposed to forming exclusive compacts. In addition, Ramaphosa made anti-corruption a centerpiece of his political program, offering a chance at potential political, economic, and even defence renewal.

This combination of crises within the defence establishment and the increasingly confident political leadership by a moderate president offers the United States a unique opportunity. While previously the hollowing out of SANDF’s capabilities could be ignored within South Africa’s political circles, the ongoing series of security crises should now add urgency around a renewal of the armed forces. This is coupled with a political leader who may have a freer hand in searching for alternatives to China in national projects. The confluence of changed circumstances may make a renewed attempt at partnership more feasible than in the recent past and one that would find more success.


Assuming South Africa accepts renewed overtures, how might such a partnership prove beneficial to the South African National Defence Force? Simply taking the aforementioned crises, the United States can do much to help the defence force meet its challenges. In terms of the capabilities that SANDF once had that were lost with personnel attrition, an expansion of programs like the International Military Education and Training program or the African Military Education Program (AMEP) would allow the renewal or creation of any number of training or educational programs for SANDF. Specifically, programs like African Military Education Program and other Defence Institution Building programs are created with a focus on building or rebuilding local capacity and are a currently favored approach of the United States regarding African partners.

The issues of maintenance and the need for new equipment are also an area where the United States can bring its considerable resources to bear. While hopefully the above-mentioned programs would allow most maintenance to be eventually taken care of by the SANDF, for cases where more extensive maintenance or new materiel may be needed, the United States is often willing to extend Foreign Military Financing credits. Given the stipulation that such grants and loans should be used to acquire defence articles from preferred partners, this offers two potential paths. First, encouraging more defence industry ties between the United States and South Africa, which would deepen the proposed partnership. Second, through encouraging collaboration between private American manufacturers and their South African counterparts. Denel pursued such initiatives in the past, which could both help procure new equipment for SANDF and rebuild the flagging local arms company. By doing so, Denel can provide employment, create investment opportunities in domestic manufacturing of upstream components for export markets, and create knowledge for a ripple effect on South Africa’s high-tech sector.

Finally, a third step would likely be the resumption of focused joint exercises between the United States military and SANDF. Such exercises are critical for SANDF’s readiness. Recent cutbacks have led to South Africa seeking partners willing to fund such exercises, even if such partnerships are more opportunistic than planned. The drawing of SANDF back into full exercises with aid of the United States would not only help SANDF keep its skills sharp but also create a local partner that could again be a keystone in larger regional exercises such as Shared Accord.

Admittedly this partnership does not superficially look any different from those between the United States and other African partners. However, it bears noting that unlike most African militaries, the South African National Defence Force does not need to build entirely new institutions to professionalize or supply itself. Instead, these steps would be more about renewing and expanding capacities neglected over the past decade or more. Even if these efforts do not help South African National Defence Force achieve their own professed goals of the 2015 Defence Review, the South African defence community has several worthwhile initiatives that are pursuable.

Ultimately, efforts involved in a defence relationship between the United States and South Africa are not about building a professional and effective military. Rather it would be helping a still professional and effective military reach full capacity and achieve its regional goals, which are broadly shared by the United States. The latter task is far more achievable through American partnerships than the former.


The United States approaches its efforts on the African continent by working with African partners: forming enduring partnerships with regional powers to effectively pursue their agenda on the continent. In Southern Africa, the natural partner for these efforts is South Africa. Not only does South Africa have a history of military professionalism and an established defence community, but it also shares many of the same regional goals as the United States. However, due to a confluence of factors, an effective defence partnership never coalesced despite benefits for both partners. Nevertheless, emerging regional crises and changes in the political leadership of South Africa signal a new opportunity to try to rejuvenate this relationship, one that can and should be explored given the transformational potential of such a partnership for the region.

Written by Vasabjit Banerjee and Charlie Thomas

Vasabjit Banerjee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Mississippi State University. He is also a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria.

Charles G. Thomas is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at Air University’s Global College of Professional Military Education. He also is the co-managing editor of the Journal of African Military History.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the US Government.

Republished with permission from The Strategy Bridge, a publication that is read, respected, and referenced across the worldwide national security community—in conversation, education, and professional and academic discourse.

The original article can be found here.