Opinion: SA’s deliberate and predictable underfunding of defence function is a threat to its democracy and economic growth


I did not listen to the country’s budget vote this year and have not done so over the last few years. Not because I don’t think it’s important but because, like many in the defence community, I would have been able to tell you for free that the defence budget allocation would either remain unchanged (if we are lucky) of will see a further decline (as we’ve become accustomed).

I’ve not made the time to verify this but a cursory look at the 2020 budget highlights reveals that the “Defence and State Security” appropriation will be R51.4bn and typically State Security tends to be allocated about R2bn leaving Defence hovering in its traditional but highly insufficient range of around or under R49bn annually.

There can be no better time to put pen to paper on defence funding as in the immediate aftermath of the week that the SANDF celebrates its formative date through the much publicised Armed Forces Day and the month in which the SAAF always celebrates its own commemorative existence that has it renowned as the second oldest air force in the world which means the SAAF is celebrating its centenary after the UK Air Force did so last year.

Defence is – like electricity, water, education, health and many others – a public good. Unlike other public goods it is never paid for directly or as a per use(r) basis but nationally as per the mandate and politically determined mandates.  Uniquely, defence – unlike other public goods – may never be experienced/enjoyed by an average South African and as such will always be a grudge buy, the last in the list of priorities and the first whenever there are to be budget cuts. Whilst most South Africans will never need the fire brigade, they may end up having use of it in case of a fire or an accident where the so-called jaws of life are needed. Similarly, defence may only ever be needed when there is a natural or man-made humanitarian disaster like floods, the collapse of a rural bridge, an intractable strike by nurses, the fight against drugs and gangsters in the Western Cape or even the collapse of municipal infrastructure as recently witnessed in the case of the Vaal sewer system.  These cases fulfil what is referred to as the “collateral utilisation” of the SANDF and are not/never directly funded in the SANDF/defence budget vote even though we as a nation demand them from the same SANDF.  The reason they are not funded is that they are not core/primary to the mandate and function to the SANDF but are always in support of the people of SA and of the department that may have the primary mandate for the same.

As if this is not enough, the SANDF has other “obligations” that get placed on it and against which it must perform and be measured.  For purposes of this paper I’ll mention only three which are “international obligations” as in peacekeeping operations; border security and cybersecurity.  As with the “collateral” tasks, these too are not funded but we demand them from the same SANDF.  For context, it is key to note that the UN often reimburses the SANDF for the operational funds it uses in foreign deployments but sadly these funds never make their way back into the coffers of the SANDF and the Department. Instead, the UN reimbursement goes onto the National Treasury thus further and systematically depriving the SANDF of already meagre funding. It is further worth noting that when the border security function was moved from the SANDF to the SAPS, the former’s budget allocation was commensurately reduced but when the function was brought back upon the failure of the SAPS to fulfil this mandate the budget was never returned forcing the SANDF to again fulfil a key task without the requisite funding. Not only was the funding not forthcoming but the SANDF units were disbanded and needed to be re-established, retrained, re-equipped etc. and all this without additional funding from the fiscus.  To make matters worse, the infrastructure and services that the SANDF had handed over to the SAPS was never maintained and was returned in a delipidated and unserviceable state once again draining the already meagre resources of the SANDF.  The last obligation relates to the country’s cybersecurity requirements which may have been allocated to the SANDF to fulfil and as always without funding.  After the cyber breaches in the SA Post Office as well as the Presidency, is it not prudent to ensure that the SANDF is actually optimally funded for such a key responsibility?

The above “collateral utilisation” and “obligations” entrusted to the SANDF are over and above its primary and constitutional mandate which is to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the RSA.  Many (in SA’s socio political and government cycles) believe that the annual defence allocation is more than enough – and in fact unnecessary – to fund this mandate hence the perpetual and persistent cutting of the defence budget from the very first administration in the SA Democratic dispensation.  Many believe that a free and democratic SA has no “enemies” and will never see a(n) conventional attack hence the decimation of the defence budget year on year. Well, they could not be more wrong and I shudder on the very thought of the folly of their ways coming to fruition and the SANDF being unable to fulfil its mandate when called to discharge thereof.  Remember this, “democracy will not defend you” when all else has failed – including this systemically underfunded defence – and we have to realise/acknowledge that “our nascent democracy actually needs to be optimally defended” through a capable and well-resourced SANDF.  If such funding is not availed – and availed urgently so – the country risks being left with an SANDF who’s only capability will be limited to hosting parades and conducting official funerals.

The travesty of all of this is that SA occupies a prestigious position and bears a grave responsibility due its assumption of the African seat in the UN Security Council for the third time now as well as the recently commenced Chairpersonship of the AU and the focus on “Silencing the Guns!” as the theme and purpose thereof.

Despite all of the above, the story and fate of the SANDF – is that of ruthless cutting of annual appropriation for the SANDF’s core/primary mandate by successive Ministers of Finance and National Treasury bureaucrats who seem to have no appreciation of the value of defence, who display limited understanding of its mandate and who display little regard for the selfless sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. This results in the gross and systemic underfunding of the defence establishment which is then coupled with the inexplicable (mis)appropriation the UN reimbursement that are due to the SANDF by the very same National Treasury who then periodically insist on carving out further “savings” from the same meagrely funded SANDF.  As a principle, and in real rand terms, the SANDF budget has been declining by at least 1% per annum due to accepted economic considerations of inflation, time value of money to mention some. As if this is not enough, the very same SANDF is then laden with additional unfunded “mandates and collateral utilisation tasks” like those already described above.  If there was ever a recipe for disaster or a perfect storm the above would trump any permutation or configuration off.  The question is not “if” but “when” the SANDF will collapse.  Does the SA Government and Parliament want to see this institution and community summarily destroyed to the detriment of not only the servicemen and women but the country itself as well as the continent whose prospects for peace (remember we are “silencing the guns”!) are dependent on the SANDF?

Granted, the SANDF as well as the Department and Ministry of Defence will have some fingers pointed at them for various shortcomings that, like all other government departments, may/will include some audit findings and qualifications, some questionable expenditure, some inefficiency and most definitely some secrecy on the basis of security considerations.  There is no doubt that the defence establishment can address these concerns as it has demonstrated in the past but regardless, all these are not enough to justify what now appears to be the deliberate decimation of the national defence force by starving it of much needed funding. History will not be kind to the President and Commander in Chief should these funding challenges remain unresolved and Parliament will not escape the responsibility due to it for failing to ensure that that this all-important institution is optimally funded and resourced to meet its constitutional mandate.   Though not accepted as conventional wisdom, we will soon realise that SA continued and successful existence as a robust democracy and economic powerhouse is intricately dependent on the SANDF. As already stated, democracy will not defend SA but democracy has to be defended by a well-resourced and funded SANDF.

In conclusion, it is crucial to offer a solution to the above and explore what is the minimum requirement for this funding issue to be resolved in the best interest of the country, the tax payers and the defence community.  The starting point is to understand, acknowledge and appreciate that the defence function is mandate driven and not funding driven. Funding is a key and critical enabler but the mandate and obligations of the defence function require the determination of the National Treasury, the support of the National Legislature and the resoluteness of the Commander in Chief to display the requisite political will that is commensurate with their enthusiasm when the SANDF is tasked with all sorts of additional mandates, obligations and collateral tasks. In real terms, and based on comparisons with other nations regionally and internationally, the defence function needs to be funded – as a minimum – at the tune of no less than 2.0% of the GDP initially for the next 2 -3 MTEF cycles which can then be slowly reduced to 1.5% of the GDP from then onwards.  This will allow the defence establishment to undertake numerous simultaneous interventions that include both rejuvenation of certain functions whilst responsibly winding down others and even reducing the headcount of the department and armed forces.

Simphiwe Hamilton is a Nelson Mandela Scholar, a former SAAF officer and serving reservist as well as the current Executive Director of AMD. He writes in his private and personal capacity.