Opinion: Is a new beginning possible, or will Defence march on inexorably towards a dead end?


Towards the end of 2006 South African Department of Defence (DD) top management attended a week-long Defence Management Seminar at Mount Grace, Magaliesberg. The seminar was presented by one of our Universities on behalf of the Minister of Defence. A professor who had earlier served as a Director General in a national department convened the seminar. From the outset he was asked why very senior officials had been uprooted from offices to attend a seminar at such short notice. His answer was that the Minister had insisted that it be held at the time and not later as he was concerned by the fact that his department lacked vibrancy, dynamism and was stagnating.

His sincere wish was that the seminar would spark a revival. Briefly, the purpose of the seminar can be said to have been an attempt to situate Department of Defence top management firmly within the democratic era, in both the cognitive and conceptual sense.

The convenor invited a West African-born, US-based professor to make the opening remarks, to “break the ice” as they say. He kicked off by describing his first ever visit in the early 1990s to an emerging new South Africa as an unforgettable experience. He recalled that the South Africa of the time was awash with ideas, vibrancy and that in spite of the uncertainty, there was hope and confidence in the inevitability of a better future. This experience breathed in new life into him and he had the sense that Africa was being re-born. In reflecting on that period, he stated that various political and social actors of differing political and ideological persuasion were searching for solutions through open contestation of ideas. He concluded his remarks by expressing the wish that such dynamism will not have waned and that the assembled group of leaders would help him relive those stimulating experiences.

This was twelve years after the momentous events of 27 April 1994 and the inauguration of the first democratically elected President on 10 May 1994. It is now fifteen years after that significant seminar, whose convening was premised on the idea that it would spark a revival of spirits and minds leading to a turnaround.

This story is hereby recalled because even today Defence is still seized with many of the same issues that were part of the substantive discussions at that seminar. One of the standout issues then, as has been the case over the years, has been the inclination to ascribe Defence challenges and problems to a “diminishing budget allocation.” The official line lends itself to the interpretation that increasing the budget allocation to two percent of the GDP will be a remedy for all of the Department of Defence’s challenges. Is this true? Having said that, let it be stated unambiguously, that indeed the defence budget has been diminishing over the years. This was to be expected as the country had to place increased focus on socio-economic and developmental challenges.

Let it however also be stated, however, that there was a time when Defence had a relatively handsome budget which was never really allocated shrewdly nor utilised optimally. This was mainly due to a failure to take perspective as well as to imagine how the future was likely to unfold. This, among other reasons, was why the aforementioned seminar was a necessary intervention.

Defence has a whole range interrelated challenges which are not only caused by a “diminishing budget allocation”, but that they themselves tend to eat away into the very same “diminishing budget”. It is therefore incumbent upon the powers that be, to also turn their attention to the broader non-budgetary issues. Continuing to solely lament about the “diminishing budget” is tantamount to “barking up one tree” to the exclusion of other “trees” which equally deserve a good deal of “barking at”.

Institutional reform is definitely one very significant “tree” that requires some serious “barking at and barking up.” No reforms have been undertaken in the period following the initial foundational reforms which were instituted in the late 1990s.

The recently approved South African Defence Review 2015 was supposedly intended to initiate a reform process but only remains as a paper ‘monument’ to the drafting team’s tireless efforts and to the unfulfilled expectations of myriads of servicemen and women who may have thought that this was to be the beginning of a new day!

The most urgent thing to do now is to undertake well thought-through and purposive reforms which will lead on to thorough-going transformation! There is no time to beat about the bush in search of serial excuses and unsound explanations.

This may be the time to take a serious look at and revisit the many useful and potentially catalytic ideas generated by members over the years. It’s time the Department listens to thoughtful practitioners who have the capacity for independent thought, rather than think of experimenting with outsourcing in a wild-goose chase for speculative ideas. This is to avoid the danger of regurgitation of cloned ideas and importation of pseudo-solutions similar to those that lead to the SA Army being stripped of its organic technical support capability. That short-sighted and misguided decision has over twenty four years metamorphosed to the extent that it now even has diplomatic insinuations.

Such thorough-going reviews and reforms can inject a new mood and assist in turning Defence around to be fully deserving of any budget “windfall” that may come its way. Instituting reforms as a prerequisite will guarantee that any such financial “windfall” is allocated wisely and utilised optimally with far-reaching effect!

Let the Department of Defence have an ongoing internal dialogue over concepts, strategy and comprehensive reform on the way to revival and becoming a learning organisation.

The status quo is untenable and does not bode well for the country’s future. It must also be recognised that the COVID-19 era with its indefinite course and inestimable impact calls for New Thinking! New thinking that can spawn “New Beginnings” for South Africa’s Defence and the broader Security Sector. Urgent substantive, comprehensive and well-orchestrated reforms are the only sure guarantee to prevent Defence driving up a cognitive and conceptual dead-end!

Article written by Major General (Rtd) Gordon Mzwandile Yekelo (SANDF) in his personal capacity, as a veteran of the Defence Sector.

Major-General Gordon Yekelo retired in 2017 as General Officer Commanding Training Command of the South African National Defence Force. In early 1978 he left South Africa and underwent Political and Military Training in Angola and in the Soviet Union after which he served in various capacities. He integrated into the SANDF in 1995 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after which he served as Senior Staff Officer Grade 1 and Senior Staff Officer at Joint Operations front 1999 to Aug 2005. In September 2005 he was promoted to Brigadier General and served as Director Doctrine Development at Joint Operations. His last appointment was Commandant SA National Defence College. On 1 February 2016 he was promoted to Major General and appointed as GOC Training Command. Yekelo was in 2017 appointed as South Africa’s Ambassador to South Sudan.