Opinions are a wonderful escape from reality. Germans spent most of the final years of World War Two believing they were winning on all fronts. It was an opinion that turned out to be mistaken, although it was based on the incontrovertible fact that Germany was successful in the initial years of that conflict.
Progress within the SA National Defence Force is currently being hobbled by a number of increasingly glaring mistaken views within the organisation and its political superstructure. While the opinion that all is well within the SANDF may be fooling that organisation’s bureaucracy and the government, it is increasingly not hoodwinking an apprehensive Parliament, alarmed defence attaches or frustrated friends of the military.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? The new guard? The old guard? Whites? Blacks? The pre-1994 SA Defence Force has a lot to answer for, most infamously perhaps, for not training officers but just “commissioning people.” This sad legacy has been carried over into the SANDF. One needs to acknowledge the context. Those miseducated this way are often like a child before a brick wall — overawed by the obstacle and quite unable to think a way around it. Like the young they also tend to exaggerate. One molehill that’s become a mountain is our highest law, the Constitution. What’s at fault is not the country’s basic law but the ability of the military to use logic to construct solid arguments. To be fair, it is not their fault. They were never trained to make decisions and take calculated risks.
Recent minutes of the Portfolio Committee on Defence (PCOD) as well as the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) make it clear that MPs have on a number of occasions concluded that they were being lied to, have on other occasions bemoaned the fact that officers and officials appearing before them were incapable of answering questions or were otherwise unbriefed on the subject to hand. MPs have further repeatedly admonished the department not to unilaterally change basic policy documents such as the 1998 Defence Review. They have also appealed in vain for a comprehensive review of the review. MPs from both the majority party and the opposition have confirmed the accuracy of the minutes, which some officials have in the past attempted to discredit.
Defence advisors report that they struggle to obtain any information from the department and experience great difficulty in operationalising any agreements or memoranda of understanding. In addition, they complain that while the SANDF is quick to ask for a visit to their countries it is loathe to receive reciprocal delegations. Feedback from a recent briefing by the SANDF was also negative. Several of those attending expressed dismay at the unwillingness of the main presenter to answer questions
posed — apparently because he did not know the answers. As a group, defence attaché’s are loathe to complain, and then usually only in diplomatic terms. The frequency of complaints and their frustrated tone indicates a series breakdown in communication, and perhaps trust. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the lead agency for international relations, has also suffered embarrassment for taking SANDF readiness reports at face value.
Meanwhile, Department of Defence (DoD) officials believe they have the PCOD and JSCD in their pocket, that relations with the defence attaches are fine and that everybody, DFA included, think the SANDF is a lean, green, fighting machine. As previously said, that is a matter of opinion.
Familiarity sometimes breeds contempt and having grown use to criticism from media circles, the DoD seemingly has little but contempt for journalists. To be fair, the attitude is sometimes — sometimes — justified. But the department must beware. SANDF training manuals are all marked with this note: “The information given in this document is not to be communicated, either directly or indirectly, to the press or to any person not authorised to receive it.” The military seemingly regard the media as automatically unauthorised to peruse departmental information. This approach has led many in the media to conclude that what passes locally as the Official Secrets Act exists to protect officials, not secrets. Of course the department disputes that, pointing out that its Promotion of Access to Information Act information office and policies have won praise from the august SA Human Rights Commission. True, but why do so many reports on important issues involving the department end with words such as “the DoD would not comment on the matter.” Caution in dealing with the media is wise. Confusing caution with ignoring them is not.
In 1997 the DoD adopted a bold new organisation based on work done by a clique of generals and a consulting firm. It proved unworkable and was amended by SANDF chief General Siphiwe Nyanda soon after he became CSANDF in 1999. The changes as well as the reasons were never officially communicated and became the stuff of rumour. The changes belatedly showed up in DoD annual reports. It is common cause that this structure, a hybrid of the pre- and post-1997 models has been an equal disaster, in particular with regard to logistics. The rumour mill is creaking again and reports from the Parliamentary defence committees are that changes in force structure and levels are again under discussion — the third overhaul in six years. It will likely again be a top-down structure driven by available finances rather than need. What is required is a bottom-up assessment of need coupled with an honest effort to secure the necessary finances. The briefings happened behind closed doors and there’s no indication when the SANDF’s owners — the public — will be told what’s going on. Ditto the SANDF’s strategy for fixing its now infamous health and age profiles, HR2010. Although “informally” available, it has, to date, never been released to the public. It is by all accounts a well-crafted document that leaves few questions unanswered, save whether the department is serious about its implementation. There is much room for doubt.
The annual reports, at least, show that the DoD is learning from mistakes and listening to criticism. They’ve grown in bulk and in vagueness. Not what one would expect of a department with the motto “defence in a democracy.” The detailed organigrams have disappeared and of the infantry formation it is simply said that they have a mix of motorised, mechanised and paratroop units, both regular and reserve. Nothing more. In addition, the DoD’s web-site, www.mil.za, allegedly a “distinguished site” is an utter disgrace. Like a 30-watt lightbulb, it is dim and serves little discernible purpose. The information is stale and difficult to access, in complete contrast to the government portal at www.gov.za. How can this be?
The latest annual report, for FY2002/3 is full of upbeat remarks. Writing from la-la-land, the authors assert that the discipline and professionalism of the SANDF is “recognised the world over.” Indeed. They gush that the force’s chief director of employment equity has been drawn into the central African peacemaking process. Visitors to the SANDF contingents in Bujumbura and Bunia — let alone media reports from courts martial — paint a different picture. The night of defence minister
Mosioua Lekota’s recent visit to Burundi, 2000 litres of diesel disappeared over the high wall surrounding the former presidential palace housing the South Africans, an eyewitness reports. Discipline struck foreign military visitors as lax, contingency plans did not exist and training had ceased as the force was busy with “operations.” What these might be was not immediately apparent. The SANDF, part of the African Union Mission in Burundi (AMIB), is busy constructing and safeguarding demobilisation sites for rebel troops, hardly high-intensity operations. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, reports say the South African contingent of the UN force there, known as MONUC, are disillusioned and dispirited. The troops, from 2SAI Battalion from Zeerust apparently have been subjected to appalling living conditions, staying 20 to an eight-man tent, suffering from sandworm infestation, a lack of fresh food and the intermittent payment of allowances. In addition, they feel abandoned by the SANDF that says their problems is the UN’s concern, not that of the South African military. Hardly the high morale advertised!
“How is it we can afford R22,6-billion for air force jets and navy corvettes when our defence policy rests on the power of a land army, the leader of the official opposition Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, MP, said this month. “How is it that we can spend almost R16-billion on Gripen fighter aircraft when there are only 10 fighter pilots in the defence force?” He asked how it was possible for R53-billion to be spent on arms when the SANDF did not have enough money to replenish ammunition
or service military vehicles. “How is it that we can equip our army with hi-tech battle gear when no more than 20 percent of its vehicles can be mobilised? How can we rely on expensive weaponry when, of 35,000 soldiers, only 2,500 are prepared to be put into the field and 20,000 are sick?, he told an audience at the Wanderers Club. The answers will no doubt not be forthcoming from the corridors of command and control.
There are good indications the SANDF is aware of the problems it faces but is either unwilling or professionally incompetent to do anything about it. Although a generalisation, the malaise is particularly acute with former SADF elements. The evidence lies in the SANDF officer’s aversion to professional reading and writing, their reluctance to mingle with foreign military contingents, the near-hermetical sealing-off of training exercises with international partners and the absence of feedback afterwards, their aversion to openly discussing their problems and their trotting out of lame excuses instead of reasons when confronted with facts. In the words of one defence adviser, they are deathly afraid of being caught out. It is too late for that. The cat is long out of the bag. Britain, France, the US, Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Egypt — to name but a few at random — have all seen the mess for themselves and reported it to their governments. It is a matter of opinion, but the only people that still believe the myth is the military and those they’ve duped.
A saving grace could be increasingly public reports of strong difference of opinion within the DoD and SANDF on the way forward. In the dissenting element and the parliamentary committees lies the last hope that the mess can still be fixed.
18 September 2003
African Armed Forces Journal, September 2003