Book review: Soldiers in a Storm

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Soldiers in a Storm looks inside the South African Defence Force (SADF) during its dying days and witnesses the birth of the South African National Defence Force. The “old guard” within the SANDF (read ex-SADF during the Georg Meiring era) commissioned Philip Frankel, a professor of politics at Wits University, to chronicle the transformation of the SANDF and the integration of the SANDF with its former foes during the period 1990-1996.
This he did in a publication entitled Marching to the Millennium, The Birth, Development and Transformation of the South African National Defence Force. The book, of which several thousand copies were printed, never saw the light of day. The printed copies are now, presumably, shredded. This is a pity.
Frankel in 2000 re-edited his manuscript and had it published under its current title.
He concentrates on four facets of the process that has brought us to where we stand. The first is the negotiations — often in bad faith — from 1991-93 that preceded the birth of the SANDF. Revealed on SADF side is small men who know a great deal about very little – and consequently cannot see the bigger picture. MK, on the other hand, could, but were hamstrung when it came to exact technical knowledge – of the type the SADF considered the acme of professional knowledge.                 
The author then turns to the actual birth of the SANDF (Chapter 2) in 1994 and then its transformation – both in structure and in culture. Chapter 4 is closer to our present time. It describes the early part of the rearmament debate that has since seen the launch of the multi-billion rand Strategic Defence Package and the deployment of the SANDF abroad on peace support duties. In his epilogue the professor, who speaks with a decade of military experience to his credit, gazes into the crystal ball to see where the SANDF is headed.      
Many lessons can be learned from this book, especially what is wrong – or right – about the way the SANDF interacted with Parliament and broader civil society in the first decade of democracy. “While it is certainly an exaggeration that ‘government attempts to establish civilian control over the defence force are floundering,’ it is nonetheless true that the newly reinvigorated MOD remains to prove mettle as a lever for civilianisation,” Frankel writes in his epilogue (p212). To this he adds that there is a definite gap between available budget on the one hand and commitments on the other – whether to peace support, internal support to the police or to acquisitions.
He also bemoans the lack of real discussion on the issues: “Notwithstanding efforts to democratise defence through such instruments as the Defence Review, defence matters are still generally regarded as highy specialist and secretive in nature – best left to central decision makers. This natural deference, a legacy of authoritarianism, is expressed in multiple ways, including little sophisticated debate on defence control and a general lack of analytical skills and interest in the academic sector.
“The inability of antimilitarist groups, such as Gun-Free South Africa and the Ceasefire Campaign, to effectively extend their activities beyond specialist microdisarmament activities indicates the wider, serious, and continuing problems of effectively regulating civil-military relations in a partially reconstituted civil society largely devoid of vigilant and critical opinion on defence issues” (p213).
Public opinion as a constraint on the military is also given short thrift – because the uninformed public too casually accepts arbitrary behaviour by political and military leaders “as a matter of national interest.” This is worrying.
More so is the way the military has treated Parliament – and studying recent Parliamentary Monitoring Group (www.pmg.co.za) transcripts of Portfolio Committee on Defence transcripts, still does. “It is a measure of the jealousy with which the SANDF guards its historically accumulated political powers that it consistently avoided, if not actually refused, to clarify the information assumptions of its strategic management plan for transformation, Project Optimum, to the JPSCD (Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence),” Frankel writes on p123.
But this is not how it was meant to be. “Early in the democratisation process CSANDF Meiring expressed a ‘sincere desire to communicate more regularly and openly with stakeholders who have legitimate interests in the defence and security of the country,'” Frankel reminds us on p111. Page 12, Section 8 of the Defence White Paper, as approved by Parliament in 1994, noted that the DOD has “a positive duty to provide sufficient information to ensure adequate parliamentary and public scrutiny and debate on defence matters” (p106).
The MOD (which consists of the minister, his deputy and a personal staff with oversight powers regarding policy formulation) “is accountable at all times to Parliament,” which is vested with extensive powers over defence legislation and budget, as well as the right to review presidential decisions regarding the deployment of the armed forces,” Frankel notes on the same page.
But what was the reality? “The generals, JPSCD members frequently complain, take every opportunity to short circuit the ability of civil society to probe military matters, particularly strategy and doctrine, where the JPSCD is at a disadvantage. This feeling, originating in the period when General Meiring was chief of the SANDF, following the 1994 elections, has not fully diminished with the appointment of his successor [Siphiwe Nyanda].
Following South Africa’s intervention in Lesotho, in late 1998, some JPSCD members felt that the armed forces were less than candid under interrogation. The military leadership was especially adept at disempowerment through overinformation, and techniques deployed so successfully during transitional negotiations frequently resurface in JPSCD deliberations. The military, so the argument goes, dutifully hangs out its internal laundry when pressed to do so. When it does, it also trots out complex charts and technical terminology specifically designed to confuse and force the demurral of uncomprehending civilians,” he commented on the previous page (p122).
“In many countries, Parliamentary defence committees are disempowered by an inability to penetrate the dense technicist, self-protective communications of soldiers. South Africa is no exception” (p120).
Is this good enough? Is this still the case? Eight years has elapsed since this book was published – in the United States – as Frankel could not find a local publisher. (As a result the book was not widely distributed in SA. Indeed, the reviewer obtained his copy from the author!) Eight years is a long time. A second edition of this work, updated to the present, would be a valuable addition to the public discourse: if a publisher can be found.          
Soldiers in a Storm
The Armed Forces of South Africa’s Democratic Transition
Philip Frankel
Westview Press
Boulder, Colorado
2000