Is the South African National Defence Force up to the challenge?

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The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) plays a vital role in safeguarding the nation’s security, both domestically and abroad. Enshrined in the Constitution, the mandate of the SANDF encompasses tasks ranging from protecting South Africa’s territorial integrity to contributing to regional stability and participating in international peacekeeping missions. However, recent discussions have surfaced concerns regarding its ability to effectively fulfil its constitutional obligations amidst evolving security challenges.

The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) Western Cape Branch held a discussion on the mandate of the SANDF on 10 April. One of the speakers was Professor Abel Esterhuyse, who examined whether the SANDF is currently capable of meeting its wide-ranging domestic and international obligations.

Esterhuyse, from the Department of Strategic Studies in the Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University, emphasised that decreased global funding for peacekeeping missions and a shift towards regionalisation of these efforts present challenges for South Africa, which has a history of involvement in continental peacekeeping.

The SANDF now operates within a “post-peacekeeping era”, characterised by a decline in global support for traditional peacekeeping missions. He noted that this transition poses significant challenges for the SANDF, as funding for peacekeeping missions dwindle and regionalisation and diversification of peacekeeping efforts complicate operational dynamics.

Esterhuyse highlighted challenges faced by the SANDF in its peacekeeping endeavours such as regional rivalries, funding constraints and capacity limitations which often impede peackeeping effectiveness. Esterhuyse stressed the importance of clear strategic outcomes and exit strategies in military missions, lamenting the lack thereof in past deployments.

“The challenge is that the military is part of the solution. But the military is not the solution,” he explained, highlighting the need holistic approaches to peacekeeping.

Esterhuyse further delved into the intricacies of proper defence planning, a process often lacking in South Africa, highlighting the critical – but presently lacking – role of civilian expertise in shaping military strategies. He emphasised the need for public debate and broader political consensus in the defence planning process.

“Defence planning is, in essence, finding a balance between the budget and the threat agenda,” he said. This strategy should be informed by a clear understanding of the security threats facing the nation, both internal and external. Budgetary constraints must also be factored into the equation.

Defence planning and policy, Esterhuyse emphasised, is not a bottom up process. “It is not to come from the military bureaucracy, it is a top down process,” he explained, generated through wide consultations. “Of course, the military should offer information and advice.”

As an example, the 2015 Defence Review failed to consider crucial realities, with Esterhuyse arguing it was conducted in a “threat independent and budget independent” manner.

Esterhuyse told his audience that the role of armed forces has evolved from traditional war fighting to a broader mission encompassing defence management, peacekeeping and even elements of conflict prevention. Soldiers today require a broader skillset that includes diplomacy, civil-military collaboration, and the ability to operate in complex environments, and Esterhuyse questioned whether the South African military is adequately preparing soldiers for this new reality.

He argued that an exclusive focus on human security may have led to underinvestment in traditional military capabilities. This could leave South Africa vulnerable to more conventional threats.

Esterhuyse claimed that the disbanding of Commando units and the loss of intelligence gathering capabilities in the 1990s weakened the military’s ability to address internal threats.

He described the current state of the SANDF as “hollowed out,” lacking sufficient intelligence capabilities and reserve forces. The military structure is criticised for being top-heavy, with too many officers stationed in Pretoria and not enough soldiers deployed operationally. This imbalance hinders the SANDF’s ability to effectively respond to a wide range of security challenges.

Esterhuyse emphasised the importance of bridging the gap between constitutional mandates and operational realities. “With clear strategic objectives and robust planning processes, the SANDF can effectively meet its constitutional obligations and contribute to regional stability and security,” he concluded.