The operational future of the South African Navy (SA Navy) is in question as it struggles against an internal enemy: how to fulfil its constitutional mandate in an era of declining budget allocations.
Speaking frankly at the inaugural South African Maritime Security Conference held in Cape Town on 31 May 2018, Vice Admiral Mosuwa Hlongwane, Chief of the SA Navy, said we “must think deeply and intelligently about our future because the Navy sits at the crossroads where its very existence is threatened.”
Bringing together senior government, military and maritime defence industry players, the conference attendees discussed the protection and promotion of South Africa’s maritime and related assets.
In her keynote address, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, emphasised that South Africa, as a maritime nation, is highly dependent on the oceans that surrounded it and that “her prosperity lies on what arrives by sea and leaves its shores by sea.”
This cannot happen without maritime security she said, saying that “this is the role of the South African Navy, responsible for maritime defence.
“Unlocking the oceans economic potential also requires security and the South African Navy as well as the Department of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries assist with this,” she continued, “the South African Navy regularly patrols for pirates in the Mozambican Channel and the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries patrol vessels keep an eye on the illegal fishing, pollution and other maritime (irregularities).”
The SA Navy, in cooperation with the South African Air Force, has been involved in anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambican Channel under Operation Copper since the SAS Mendi commenced patrols in 2011. The SA Navy also conducts maritime border safeguarding operations under Operation Corona.
This, Mapisa-Nqakula said, “is just one component of our desire to protect and secure our borders against maritime attacks such as smuggling, trafficking, illegal fishing and piracy which contributes to instability and economic loss requiring us to effectively manage, monitor and react to maritime threats and challenges.”
However, with a budget allocation of R4.4 billion this financial year, the SA Navy is facing a crisis like no other in its 96 year history.
Describing the geo-strategic and geo-political world and the effects of this on South Africa and the Navy, Hlongwane echoed what Mapisa-Nqakula stated during her budget speech of 18 May 2018, where she said that “the unpredictability of the strategic environment, together with emerging conflict trends on the African continent, requires us to maintain a credible military force as a deterrent,” and that that terrorism posed a real danger to the southern African region.
“Whilst the requirement for a capable navy was recognised, he said that “one of the biggest challenges facing our military is the same one facing the country, that of departmental budgetary shortfalls.”
He quoting Mapisa-Nqakula once again: “Some of the countries in the SADC are injecting financial resources to build their military capacity through acquisition programmes. Conversely, South Africa is on a path of reduced defence expenditure.”
In this year alone, the defence budget experienced a reduction of R5.8 billion, posing serious constraints to defence and the plan to address the decline remains unfunded.
“The Navy being so small and so technology dependent, it is at critical mass in this regard and is particularly vulnerable to the ravages of budget cuts.”
He continued: “I think we must all accept that the Defence Department is not likely to see huge injections of cash in the foreseeable future. This is a reality that we must accept and must confront its challenges.”
The reality of years of budget constraints and declines has had a major impact on the operations of the SA Navy, notwithstanding the latest Defence Review and the requirement to arrest the decline in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) capabilities.
Acknowledging the capability decline and shortfall affecting the SA Navy, Hlongwane reflected that they could already start to say: “We are in a damage control mode and that we are no longer arresting the decline.”
Whilst they also need to communicate to all role players and stakeholders what those priorities and plans are, Hlongwane referred to the Department of Defence Annual Performance Plan of 2018, in which it is stated:
“The reduced budget allocation to Defence may necessitate a full re-appreciation of the DOD and the development of a plan to reconfigure the department to align with its available resources. This re-appreciation may result in a vastly reduced defence capability.”
“It’s very difficult to secure the financial resources we require,” Mapisa-Nqakula said. “As you heard within the budget speech, it’s not the first time we’ve raised this matter. We raised it two years ago, we raised it last year.”
She continued: “What worries me more is the fact that as the budget decreases, all countries around us are upping their capabilities, spending more on the capabilities they need, getting the best in the world. My sense is that there really is no appreciation of why we need to spend more on the defence of the Republic of South Africa.”
Mapisa-Nqakula does appreciate the challenges faced by the national fiscus, but believes that if they want to talk about growth and economic stability, “we need to spend more on securing the country, so that investors can feel confident that, indeed, you can invest in South Africa,” she said.
The Minister acknowledged that the capabilities of the Defence Force now are below that of 1994. “We do have challenges and yes, our challenges were as a result of the Defence Review of 1996/98. … The latest Defence Review talks openly about some of the challenges we have.”
Nevertheless, Mapisa-Nqakula said “the Defence Force of our country tries its best with the limited resources that are allocated to it.”
However, that there are certain areas which can still be “tightened up”, such as command and control within the Defence Force and issues of discipline.
As the Chief of the SA Navy urged the conference participants, “take note of our priorities and I sincerely request that you support me in my endeavours to keep this nation’s fine Navy alive as a flourishing and effective combat service so that we can serve our people in accordance with our constitutional mandate.”