Empowering the guardians of military culture


Forward thinking by two academics and a senior warrant officer is paving the way for empowerment of the men and women traditionally known as military disciplinarians to create and instil military culture as an asset in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

Leading the charge, as it were, is Professor Ian van der Waag, professor of military history at Stellenbosch University’s Military Academy. He enlisted the assistance of colleague Professor Abel Esterhuyse and Senior Chief Warrant Officer (SCWO) Zakhele Sikupela, the warrant officer in command of the SANDF Warrant Officers’ Academy at the Wonderboom military base north of Pretoria. Esterhuyse, like Van der Waag, is a member of the Faculty of Military Science and heads its Department of Strategic Studies.

Explaining the origins of the short three week Stellenbosch University course, with a 20 credit value to successful students, Van der Waag said he designed it to provide senior SANDF warrant officers – and in future those from other countries – with a broad knowledge and understanding of the nature, role, and elements of military culture in the armed forces.

The pilot course saw 10 SANDF senior warrant officers accompanied by Van der Waag and Department of Military History colleagues Dr Evert Kleynhans, Louis Makau and Anri Delport in Simon’s Town earlier in November, on a visit planned to coincide with Armistice Day (11 November).

“The focus was specifically South African. In time, I would like to see whether we might broaden the scope, include foreign registrations and possibly present the course across two or more institutions. This will enrich the experience and internationalise the qualification.

“Sergeant majors and warrant officers are neglected when it comes to education in the SANDF. I believe this is the case elsewhere too,” Van der Waag told defenceWeb.

“The short course capitalises on formal and informal learning opportunities – pertaining to military professional development for warrant officers through the Warrant Officers’ Academy and exploits their insight and experience regarding military culture issues, which are increasingly neglected. We hope to empower warrant officers to manage military culture – in all its forms – in their respective environments and make significant contributions to the development and preservation of culture and its role in building and sustaining a professional defence force.”

On what he terms “desired outcomes” Van der Waag lists six.

They are: to understand the nature, role and scope of military culture; interpret – at introductory level – development of military and strategic culture in the SANDF; view in perspective the role of military culture in preparing soldiers for their task; analyse historical case studies of South African operations and apply the knowledge to contemporary issues; explain and interpret – at introductory level – interaction between commemoration (memory) and warfighting and relate it to military culture in South Africa; and practically demonstrate an understanding of the importance of military culture in the SANDF by completing the Historical Survey.

The Historical Survey is an official proforma capturing routine activities of units: changes in command, parades and ceremonial matters, short historical unit backgrounds and appendices for newspaper clippings, photographs of unit activities, and more. Van der Waag points out all SANDF units used to complete the Survey annually.

“This fell into disuse and using the Survey as part of the course’s practical component we hope to see it re-introduced,” he said.

Course content starts with discussion on concepts including “history”, “military history” and “military culture”.

“From there we embark on a soldier’s journey from the decision to enlist, through processes relating to military socialisation of recruits, the ways in which culture shapes thinking about warfighting and memorialising military activities and events. They include discussion, with practical exercises, on the writing of what might be termed war literature; use of unit and personal honours – battle honours as well as medals and decorations; the role and function of military museums; and other ways of constructing the memory of events and individuals,” he said.

The pilot course will be given the fine tooth comb treatment with a view to improvements for future military culture short courses.