Difficult for citizens to become interested in defence as it is not a vote-winning portfolio


Defence is not a vote-winning portfolio and because of this, there is very little to no party politics around defence, a webinar on the South African defence budget has heard.

Speaking at a webinar on the defence budget held on 21 May, Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Kobus Marais, said the concept of citizens getting interested in the DoD is very difficult concept because, “You can’t have a referendum, a popular vote on what kind of defence force they (South African citizens) want.” He was speaking in response to the minister asking “What kind of defence force should South Africa have and what can it afford?” during her budget vote.

Mapisa-Nqakula posed the question on 18 May during her budget speech on the back of the Department of Defence (DoD) receiving a 14% decrease for the next fiscal year (from R54.2 billion in 2020/2021 to R46.2 billion in 2021/2022). The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the DoD are going to have a hard time dealing with the shrinking budget for their next fiscal year, which will see more than 60% of it going towards compensation of employees and even less on operations, maintenance and capital acquisitions.

In response to the budget vote, the University of Stellenbosch held a webinar to discuss it and Mapisa-Nqakula’s speech.

Marais said defence is not a vote-winning portfolio; people don’t vote based on a party’s defence portfolio and because of this, there is very little to no party politics around defence. Marais mentioned that the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans as well as the Joint Standing Committee on Defence is completely bipartisan.

Ronney Ncwadi, economics lecturer at the University of Nelson Mandela, specialising in public finance, said that the problem with public opinion on defence in South Africa is that there is such a large amount of disbelief that citizens have any bearing on politics in the country. Citizens and media in a functioning democracy are watchdogs that ensure the government runs its departments accordingly. In the case of the DoD, citizens have very little interaction with the SANDF, mainly seen in rescue operations and assisting police in hostile areas. Ncwadi said, “There is a lack of incentives for the voter to monitor every government activity.”

The SANDF and the DoD does suffer from a lack of public interest, along with a declining budget, capabilities and mission readiness as well as an increasing compensation of employees.  The African National Congress is no exception in being a democratic party, meaning its agenda, what drives the party and its ability to retain power relies on people voting for them, the webinar heard. A department of defence with a conventional defence force usually receives around 2% of its country’s GDP; the South African DoD is to receive 0.86% of the 2021/2022 GDP.