Happy (belated) birthday to the SANDF

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On 19 May, Minister of Defence Thandi Modise released a statement, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). She highlighted historic successes, and recent activity, and the new patrol vessels “which will come in handy managing our maritime security.”

While there are some events worth celebrating, the current state of the SANDF leaves much to be desired. The Minister’s birthday wishes came almost a month late, and hot on the heels of a rise in insurgent activity in both Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These two countries are home to two of the SANDF’s biggest commitments, and provide two examples of the Department of Defence’s (DoD’s) bad planning.

The DoD is not only busy juggling two hot potatoes on the peacekeeping end. The SANDF has been assisting the South African Police Service (SAPS) with combating gang violence in the Western Cape, preventing truck torchings, protecting Eskom’s infrastructure and even tackling illegal mining. The SANDF’s mandate does include assisting the police, but it seems like the SAPS is tagging SANDF in whenever they can’t cope.

The deployment combating illegal mining (which ended 25 April) has even been extended to 31 October. An additional 746 personnel will be deployed from 1 April 2024 to 31 March 2025 “for the prevention and combating of crime and maintenance and preservation of law and order in the Republic of South Africa under Operation Prosper [at] Eskom power stations”.

The report does a lot of cherry picking on the SANDF’s successes, but remains awfully quiet on many of the issues it faces. There is no mention about the maintenance backlog, lack of available aircraft or the recent deaths associated with the SAMIDRC pre-deployment. The Minister is aware, however, as the conclusion throws in a juicy “please help” by ending off with “For the SANDF to fully satisfy its traditional primary role of defence is to defend and protect a nation’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and its people as derived from Section 200 of the Constitution; the Defence Act (2002), a reconsideration of funding and increase on the Human Resource and operating baseline is required.”

What a high note to close on. The statement, reading like an attempt to gloss over the Minister’s term, does reveals something critical. The current administration has no plan to turn things around. It has run out of ideas, and is simply rudderless. The DoD has spent over a decade talking about “arresting the decline”, but maintenance backlogs and funding cuts have grown, with no plan to accommodate desires with funding limits. Mere days before the national election, it was clear, despite multiple policy documents, the DoD has no plan.

It is time to begin instituting reforms to move the SANDF forward. We need a new Defence Review, we need a multi-year plan on restructuring the force so it may respond to threats appropriately. We need to efficiently plan for deployments and ensure there is funding available. We crucially need to commit to funding the force over the next five year term, so as plans are developed, they can be implemented.

Written by Ricardo Teixeira, Rise Mzansi Candidate for the National Assembly and defence and national security advocate.