Defence commentators are asking whether there is still a national consensus on defence, a factor identified by South Africa’s military as a measure of its success. Academics specialising in defence matters, politicians, activists and journalists are all questioning whether it is closed season for transparency at the SA National Defence Force.
This approach was typified last week by Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota announcing during his Budget Vote address that his department was revising the 1996 Defence White Paper (DWP) and 1998 Defence Review (DR) in-house. Both had been drafted and published after lengthy public consultations. It is also not clear if the documents, once completed, will be published. The military’s plan to revitalise its staff by the end of this decade, dubbed “HR2010”, although adopted by Cabinet well over a year ago and having a cover date of June 2002 has still not been made available to the public.
During the same address Lekota sought to assure MPs that South African troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo were safe and were not facing any threat. He also denied claims that the South African contingent of the United Nations’ Monuc force lacked equipment and discipline. But this was questioned by media reports that said that each of the four infantry companies deployed in the DRC had only four Casspir armoured personnel carriers — of which only two were said to be serviceable at any given time — instead of 12. A lack of spare parts is said to be to blame.
As a result, a section detailed to escort a Samil 100 logistics truck near Goma last weekend had to ride on a Samil 20 troop carrier — a light, unstable, 2-ton truck notorious for its high centre of gravity. Troops sitting on the back are also completely exposed to hostile fire and landmine blasts. The trucks were ambushed and one private was wounded. He and another rifleman were subsequently killed when the truck overturned while attempting to speed away from the scene.
Retired air force major general and Institute for Security Studies (ISS) analyst Len le Roux said between 1994 and 1998 there was proactive engagement between the Department of Defence (DoD) and civil society. It was during this time that the DWP and DR were drafted, approved and published. Afterwards, that engagement tapered off and became more reactive. “The debate is not closed but it is now more difficult to engage. We have moved away from the open debate we used to have,” Le Roux said. As an example he cited President Thabo Mbeki’s decision to abolish the commando system. “The decision was in direct contradiction with the DR. It will appear not even Parliament was consulted before the time.” The decision was simply announced to Parliament as an accomplished fact in February last year.
Le Roux was hopeful the DoD would ask for public participation in the review process. He expressed concern that they had not done so yet. “There have been no proactive moves to date,” he said. The reviewed documents will eventually go before Parliament, but the discussion will then be about a document already on the table. There seemed to be no attempt to discuss policy before writing it, Le Roux lamented. A national consensus on defence, he added, was always a problematic construct and probably unattainable, but in 2004 there was less of it than in 1998/99. “I attribute that to an assumption within the department that once there was a consensus, it would endure. There seemed to be no realisation that as things changed, one needed to keep going back to the public to maintain and renew that consensus.”
Margy Keegan of Gunfree SA agreed that the general level of debate about defence seemed to have subsided. However, she was confident sufficient civil society groups — such as the ISS — remained in the field. She was adamant that the review of the DWP and DR had to be broad-based. “It should be subject to a public process. This has proved very effective in past,” Keegan said.
Democratic Alliance defence spokesman Rafeek Shah said there had to be transparency in all processes, otherwise there could be no accountability. “The ANC (African National Congress) is failing to make a distinction between the state and the party. So they have taken to consulting themselves and argue that since they represent the people the people have been consulted. The opposition doesn’t count, they lost the election. So an ‘internal process’ is legitimate in their eyes,” Shah said. “It is proper that the result be put before Parliament, but it will probably just be for rubber-stamping. There is little critical thinking here. That is sending out the wrong signal to the public. The people will start looking at us (MPs) with suspicion. There is a de facto ‘politburo’ running Parliament. What we will have in the end is a government of the people by the party for the party,” Shah said. The rookie MP and Muslim cleric added the revised DWP and DR would have a direct impact on the economy because it could impact the percentage of GDP spent on defence and might argue that the country needs more arms acquisitions (like the Strategic Defence Package or SDP). “But it won’t say that what we have just bought is not adequate for what we are doing — namely peacekeeping,” Shah added.
Defence industrialist Richard Young agreed that most of the arms purchased under the SDP were unsuitable for peacekeeping. He added that, based on his own detailed analysis, many of the purchases were also not justified by the existing DR — despite government’s insistence that they were. As a result he could not see any point in updating the DWP and DR or for
calling for a public debate. “What’s the use of a fancy review process with public participation if they are just going to do what they want to anyway?” He said the prime mover behind the SDP was then Trade and Industry minister Alec Erwin who in 1999 needed to prove himself in his portfolio. “Erwin was not interested in the defence review. Requirements or costs
made no difference to him. He wanted to kick-start the economy and saw the offsets to be gained from the SDP as the way to do it. “That’s how the arms deal was allowed to become such a big thing by (former President Nelson) Mandela and Mbeki,” Young, chief executive of CCII, a defence information technology company, said. “This is the type of thing you get from a disaffected arms dealer,” he added, jokingly. Asked what could be done to better the process he said most of the mechanisms required were already in place. The experience of the 20 years to 1999 was that the military had to set proper requirements and specify a budget and then let Armscor, the DoD acquisition agency, do the rest. Politicians, executive and Parliamentary, had to monitor, not meddle. MPs had to overcome their ignorance on the subject and their parties had an obligation to see to it they were trained. “Political parties have to groom people for the job. Seminars are needed to ‘train’ MPs… They need good people, including people with military experience… Oversight committees seldom engage in incisive questioning, usually it is the opposite,” Young concluded.
Following the Tempe massacre in September 1999 when a disgruntled black officer killed and wounded a number of white colleagues at a military base in Bloemfontein, the DoD also cut back links with the press. The military’s extensive network of media liaison officers was dismantled and armed forces personnel were prohibited from speaking to the press without ministerial approval, apparently because Lekota had been embarrassed by contradictory statements in the media and had first read about the seriousness of racial tension in the military in newspapers rather than reports from his staff. This has led to some bizarre situations such as a reporter wanting to interview troops engaged in safeguarding the election in KwaZulu-Natal
earlier this year being told to speak to Lekota’s spokesman who would in turn speak to the soldiers. The journalist, a political editor at a daily newspaper, afterwards said he was flabbergasted that he was expected to do a face-to-face interview
by telephone via Pretoria. As a result of this approach many journalists no longer seriously attempt to interact with the military.
SA National Editors Forum deputy chairman and Rhodes journalism professor Guy Berger said defence was a critical sector of national life that merited more media coverage than it was receiving. Asked whether journalists were frustrated in their reporting by the military, Berger said “I haven’t heard any complaints from editors, but that could be because of the minimal coverage.” Berger said the media has lost some of its expertise on military matters and in the cut-backs that have seen most newsrooms pruned in the last ten years, defence was a “beat” that had suffered. Hardly any newspapers other than the Afrikaans dailies Beeld and Die Burger still have dedicated defence correspondents — raising the question of how competent the media is to cover defence. The ISS’ Le Roux said he believed the media in general face challenges reporting defence objectively and with full understanding. The media was sometimes inclined to accentuate the negative and not the
positive. Reporters also frequently — out of ignorance — confused basic definitions and concepts and got facts wrong, by, for example writing about army helicopters, when they were, in fact, operated by the SA Air Force. “There is a responsibility on the media to understand defence and know the difference between brigades and battalions and the army and air force,” Le Roux said. But one could only have an educated media if the military took in interest in explaining itself.
This is well understood abroad. In 2002 a US officer writing in the official periodical, Armor, said: “The media inform the very people who pay our salaries, own our equipment and help form the opinions of the parents whose sons and
daughters they entrust to us. For a significant portion of this nation, the media is their only link to the military. The American people are our higher headquarters, and the media is our radio.” Another officer, in the Marine Corps Gazette, called the media a conduit to the people — “the device by which we explain who we are and what we do.”
A US military manual in 2000 explained this further, saying it was incumbent on every soldier, sailor or airman to provide the media the access, candour, and insights necessary to produce an honest portrayal. “That a reporter is ignorant of what you do, or the rules under which you operate, makes him or her no less interested. And, in any event, that reporter is going to convey something to the public,” the US Marine Corps’ manual added.
However, the DoD faces some constraints in engaging the media. The SANDF is increasingly a foreign policy instrument and in terms of a White Paper on peacekeeping, not responsible for justifying its external activities. It is the Department of Foreign Affairs’ function to explain South Africa’s choice of peace missions and to ensure popular buy-in. “My opinion is they’ve not done this for either the DRC or Burundi and there’s no sign they plan a concerted information campaign for Sudan,” Le Roux said. But where incidents occur, such as that at Goma, it was incumbent on the SANDF to answer all questions promptly and as accurately as possible. It cannot be seen to hide behind another department or refer queries to a far-away UN bureaucracy while anxious families and friends wait for news.
Several other institutions, including Lekota’s office were approached for comment but either failed to respond or could not do so by the time of publication.
14 June 2004
14 June 2004