Is South Africa’s defence force up for new thinking?


Among a flurry of references to ambitions and planning processes, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise’s recent budget speech offers glimmers of hope about the ‘rescue [of] the SANDF’ – the South African National Defence Force.

In his 2021 cabinet reshuffle, President Cyril Ramaphosa swapped Modise, then Speaker of Parliament, with Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, then defence minister. Mapisa-Nqakula had a poor track record in the post. She was appointed by then president Jacob Zuma in 2012 and served for nine hapless years, during which time the department’s budget, capacities and efficacy steadily declined.

By 2021 the department was in a shambles. Accounting for expenditure was poor, there were recurring reports of ill-discipline during external deployments, and strategic facilities were used for private benefit. Most troubling was the deployment of SANDF as cannon fodder in the 2013 Central African Republic Battle of Bangui, where 15 soldiers died. Morale fell to an all-time low.

In 2013, the department’s name was changed to Defence and Military Affairs. A Military Veterans Act had been promulgated in 2011, after which a separate Department of Military Veterans was created. It focused on operating expenses (pensions and other benefits) above investment in military capabilities.

Modise inherited a mess from her predecessor. The lack of succession planning to revitalise the senior leadership cadre was perhaps the most serious. Shortly after assuming office, Modise made it clear that she was up for new thinking, given the mismatch between the SANDF’s mandate, its budget and capabilities, and the changed security environment.

In September 2021, she told Parliament she was considering establishing an ‘intermediate’ military force trained and equipped to deal with unrest in the country. Her appointment followed the July 2021 public violence and looting, during which 25 000 soldiers were deployed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces to supplement police capabilities. Because South African soldiers aren’t equipped or trained for such a role, their primary function was guard duty.

During her 2023 budget speech, Modise announced the proposed ‘Future RSA Defence and Security Policy Concept’. The concept must recognise that the military’s primary function should be emergency prevention and intervention, internally and regionally, stepping away from the notion of conventional defence.

Conventional defence is central to the department’s interpretation of its mandate to ‘defend and protect the territorial integrity of South Africa,’ as reflected in the country’s constitution. It underpinned the National Defence White Paper of 1996 and the 1998 and 2015 Defence Reviews. As a result, no investment was made to develop doctrine and capabilities for internal stability operations after 1994, although this has become an obvious need.

The department needs severe pruning and restructuring. Probably half to two-thirds of its generals and admirals should be retired. Its structure resembles a mushroom, a small stem supporting a large, top-heavy system. Changes needed are among others, re-establishing regional commands (one for each province) and closing the Defence Secretariat (relocating some staff to the SANDF chief and minister’s office). The SANDF chief should be the accounting officer rather than the Defence Secretary.

Responsibility for managing veterans’ affairs should be moved to the social development department. While the 2023/24 defence budget dropped by around R500 million from the previous adjusted budget, expenditure on military veterans increased by 34% to R895 million. It’s set to grow at an average annual rate of 16.5% in 2025/6.

The defence force’s role has shifted from warfighting (during apartheid) to defence and peace management, including its involvement in African peace processes. The SANDF has been deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 20 years, and its presence in northern Mozambique will probably continue for a decade or more.

But there is a vast difference between deployment and impact. No discussions have been had on the operational or strategic effectiveness of these efforts. The SANDF (and government as a whole) seems to struggle to deliver any meaningful outcomes. What is the strategic end-state of these operations? How will the taxpayer know when that has been achieved?

Along with its domestic and border duties, the SANDF has become an important part of South Africa’s foreign policy in Africa. But due to a lack of defence resources – sometimes troops in the field don’t receive logistical support – and poor coordination with the international relations department, the country is often left embarrassed by these endeavours.

Border protection and support for the police seem to have become a primary role for South Africa’s military. Yet instead of strengthening the capacity of the home affairs department, Revenue Service and SANDF, the cabinet approved the establishment of the Border Management Authority – against the recommendations of all three departments.

As the July 2021 riots showed, the military is increasingly being used as a stopgap institution – even to fix or maintain water infrastructure. The report to the president on the July 2021 unrest described the country’s security institutions, including the SANDF, as being hollowed out. So it’s no surprise that Modise’s budget speech focuses almost exclusively on the defence department’s legacy and structural issues.

Modise is correct in pointing out the skewed budget allocation for personnel and the lack of appropriate funding for peacekeeping and other operations. The decline in the SANDF’s capabilities, lack of cyber resilience, and the need to reconfigure command-and-control structures are key issues regularly featured in speeches by Modise and her predecessor.

Yet many critical matters facing the SANDF are bureaucratic and should be dealt with by the department, not its political leadership. The bridge between the SANDF’s politics, mandate and structure seems particularly dysfunctional. There is no alignment between the size of the defence budget, the structure and nature of the SANDF, and the kind of operations it should prepare for.

Defence planning isn’t rocket science. Modise and the military leadership must structure a department that can respond appropriately to South Africa’s security challenges with 1% of the country’s GDP.

Written by Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures & Innovation, ISS and Abel Esterhuyse, Head, Department of Strategic Studies, Stellenbosch University.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.