We do not step back often enough to reflect on what we have all achieved in South Africa.
The establishment of a national defence force, forged from seven different armed formations, which were once sworn enemies, was always going to a challenge.
I would like to begin then by acknowledging the hard work being done by the minister and the department in dealing with many of the challenges facing the defence force.
We may not always agree on what must be achieved, but that does not mean nothing has been achieved.
The minister should take credit for:
* the role the defence force played in providing security during World Cup 2010;
* the deployment of a warship on anti-piracy operations off the coast of Mozambique;
* the role the defence force are playing safeguarding our landward borders; and
* the deployment of the defence force on anti-poaching operations in the Kruger National Park.
The minister should also take credit for:
* the appointment of Mpumi Mpofu, as Secretary of Defence;
* the appointment of Mziwonke Dlabantu, as the Chief Financial Officer; and
* audit reports which are going in the right direction as a result of “Operation Clean Audit”.
The new Secretary of Defence, Mpumi Mpofu, has shown that she has the “right stuff”. She is a military version of a “Tiger Mom”, who’s management motto, we hear, is: “comply or die”.
The defence secretariat is being pushed harder than ever before, and we are beginning to see the results.
State of the Defence Force
The final report of the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission was made public in late 2010. The commission effectively took an “official peek” at service conditions within the defence force. And what the commission observed, during visits to military bases throughout the defence force, was shocking.
The commission found a broken chain of command, a politicised promotion system, a dysfunctional grievance system, a breakdown in discipline and a career management system that did not work.
The shocking state of the defence force was symbolized by the crisis the commission found at the Doornkop/Lenz military base, home to 21 South African Infantry Battalion.
The commission observed:
* “troops simply idling about the base because there were no proper facilities”;
* “leaks in roofs and pipes, broken doors and windows, caved in ceilings, blocked urinals and toilets”; and
* troops that “reported for duty at 08h00 and then left the base at 09h00 with the knowledge of their officers”.
The situation was so bad that the commanding officer, who was acting in the position, and who was merely a major, conceded that he had lost control of the soldiers. In the end, the commission provides official confirmation that the South African National Defence Force is in deep trouble.
The commission made several recommendations, many of which were poorly defined. The commission were absolutely correct, however, to recommend that “a properly funded and extensive defence review be undertaken as soon as possible”. The last defence review was carried out in 1998 – more than ten years ago – and is now completely outdated. The strategic environment has changed fundamentally since the last defence review.
That is why we need to conduct a defence review to “reset” the mandate, capabilities and funding levels of the defence force. The minister should make the defence review an absolute priority and ensure that is conducted in an open, transparent and inclusive manner so that we can build the broadest possible consensus about the future of the defence force.
State of Parliament
You will all recall that final report of the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission caused a political battle, which lasted for months, and which ended up in a purge of ruling party members serving on the portfolio committee.
Winning the political battle was, presumably a high moment for the minister, but it was a low moment for our constitutional democracy. I, for one, cannot understand why the minister, who worked so hard to build democracy in our country, is now working so hard to break democracy in our country? In a constitutional democracy, such as ours, it is imperative for the defence force to be properly accountable to Parliament. However, the reality is quite different:
* the Chief of the South African National Defence Force, together with the service chiefs, have never appeared before the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans or the Joint Standing Committee on Defence;
* despite the fact that parliament is expected to vote on the appropriation of more than R36 billion for the defence department, parliament has never been briefed on the combat readiness of the defence force;
* major capital acquisition projects are buried in the Special Defence Account, despite only a small portion of expenditure on projects being tagged as “sensitive projects”;
* written parliamentary questions are simply ignored, half answered and in some cases simply not answered, and now hardly seem worth submitting;
* access to information requests on the arms deal, the Airbus A400M and VIP flights are largely ignored; and
* grievances submitted on behalf of both serving and former members of the defence force, such as the more than 30 grievances in this box, are not efficiently dealt with and no feedback on progress is provided.
The defence department, unfortunately, remains, to a large extent, a state-within-state resisting being properly accountable to Parliament.
One of the best examples of the defence department resisting scrutiny and oversight is the whole question of “VIP flights”.
In the past, the department of defence provided parliament with all the relevant details including the routing, names of passengers, a breakdown of the operating costs, and the total cost of each VIP flight. However, the minister now refuses to provide parliament with any of these details on the grounds that disclosure of the information may compromise – you guessed it – “national security”.
I suspect that what the minister is trying to hide from parliament are the massive costs involved in laying on military aircraft, reserve force aircraft and chartered aircraft for VIPs. There can be no better support for this proposition than the ministers own flight schedule. The minister is, to put it mildly, a “frequent military flyer” regularly using military aircraft operated by the South African Air Force.
The minister would not want you to know the actual number of flights she undertakes each week.
The minister would also not want you to know the number of “ferry” flights – that is when an empty military aircraft transits from Pretoria to Cape Town, or from Cape Town to Pretoria, for example – to collect the minister. And the minister would really not want you to know that the cost of operating some of the aircraft she uses exceeds R50 000 per flying hour.
This means that, every time the minister flies between Pretoria and Cape Town return, the total cost of the flight would fund: –
* the building of approximately two houses for military veterans; and
* the employment of approximately four young people for a whole year on the defence force’s MSDS programme.
Surely, now that the minister has the facts she will consider scaling back her flight schedule?
I know, going back to “chicken or beef”, will be a real pain, but perhaps the minister, would even try flying commercial on South African Airways?
Of even more concern, is that we hear the defence department was looking to buy two Boeing 767s, two 737s and two Bombadier Global XRS aircraft for use by the president and ministers.
Now we hear that the defence department have settled for two Embraer Linaege 1000 aircraft to transport VIPs at the cost of R800 million from an obscure company called AdoAir. I suspect there is something very wrong here, and in the coming weeks this deal needs to be scrutinized.
Why is it that this deal was driven by the Central Procurement Service and not by Armscor?
In any event, we need to look into:
* excessive secrecy surrounding VIP flights;
* massive increase in the costs of VIP flights; and
* the safety of the aircraft charted by the defence department in the light of the Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s emergency landing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009.
I have written to the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, Mr Stanley Motimele, in this regard and I am sure the minister will be pleased to hear, I have not received a reply.
In the end, the fact is that proper parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of the defence department is in danger of collapsing.
And the parliamentary defence committees are now in danger of turning into a political charade where members pretend to ask questions and officials pretend to provide answers.
The struggle to keep proper scrutiny and oversight of the defence department from collapse is, however, not over.
It will culminate, sometime this year, I suspect, in a political battle to prevent the minister from turning the Joint Standing Committee on Defence into a Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, which meets behind closed doors.
Now rather than take the easy road and hide behind the defence force’s favourite fig leaf – “national security” – let us take the hard road and find a proper balance between secrecy and transparency.
And let us do this because in the words of one distinguished legal scholar: “A society that demonstrates no concern for this problem has ceased, or is ceasing, to be democratic”. In the end, effective scrutiny and oversight may not always be good for the minister of defence, but it is good for the department of defence.
And so, perhaps it is time for parliament to conduct our own “defence review”, focusing on strengthening the state of scrutiny and oversight of the defence department, so that we can make an effective contribution to building a defence force which:
* recognizes the supremacy of the constitution;
* is responsive to elected public representatives;
* most importantly is properly accountable to Parliament.
We must not sit back and allow the defence department to remain a state-within-a-state beyond proper scrutiny and oversight by Parliament.
I thank you.