Declining Reserve Force man days undermining SANDF

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The declining use of Reserve Force man days in line with budget cuts is affecting the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) has found.

Brigadier General Zoleka Niyabo, Director: Defence Reserves, earlier this month briefed the JSCD on the status of the SANDF reserves, reminding the Committee that the Reserves are there to augment the regular force, especially in times the SANDF suddenly needs large number of personnel; and they provide specialist and scarce skills especially for reconstruction and development.

There are roughly 19 000 Reserve Force members and between 12 and 15 000 have been called up over the last three years. The majority of available Reserves (12 000) are Army members, followed by the SA Military Health Service (2 400), Logistics Division (1 000), Navy (670), and Air Force (650).

The Reserve Force man days budget for 2020/21 allowed for 2.6 million man days but from April 2022 this was reduced to 1.9 million a year in order to cut costs in line with other measures that will also see 3 000 permanent members exit the SANDF over the next three years. However, due to the many different tasks the SANDF has been called upon to execute, from flood relief to riot control, the SANDF used 3.3 million Reserve Force man days in 2020/21; 2.7 million in 2021/22; and 2.3 million the following year.

Due to the man day reduction to 1.9 million a year, Niyabo cautioned that “not all Force Employment goals can be fulfilled.”

“The Reserves have proved to be cost effective,” Niyabo stated, and are well used in operations such as the border safeguarding Operation Corona (where 40% of companies are made up of Reserves); Operation Prosper (supporting the police in enforcing law and order), flood relief and guarding Eskom power stations.

“Both Operation Notlela [the SANDF’s response to the coronavirus pandemic] and Operation Prosper [restoring law and order following civil unrest in July 2021] proved that the SANDF cannot conduct any operation without being augmented by the Reserves,” Niyabo concluded.

The co-chairs of the JSCD, Cyril Xaba and Mamagase Nchabeleng, on 3 March voiced concerns regarding the decline in Reserve Force man days, “which the committees believes undermines the reserve force’s strategic intention to augment the regular force. The declining number of man days is also concerning in the context that reserves have proved to be cost effective, while providing specialist skills, thereby making a significant contribution within the SANDF.”

Other challenges faced by the Reserves are stagnation, lack of rejuvenation, the need to revive the University Reserve Training programme, lack of a feeder system due to no more new intakes from the Military Skills Development System since 2016, and an ageing force.

The Joint Standing Committee on Defence said it welcomed the intentions to hold a Reserve Force Indaba 2, which will look into different aspects of the Reserve Force system. “The committee is hopeful that the indaba will find workable solutions, including reskilling of Reserve Force members, training to ensure combat readiness and ways to rejuvenate the Reserves through new intakes. The committee will interact with the Defence Reserve Division following the indaba to assess the proposed solutions to arrest the ongoing decline of the reserve force.”