Real term decline in ‘disastrous’ SA defence budget

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South Africa’s 2024 budget allocation has been revealed to Parliament this afternoon, and it does not bode well for the Department of Defence and South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The 2024/25 defence budget is set at R51.8 billion, compared with R51.1 billion appropriated for 2023/24 but subsequently adjusted to R52.4 billion.

For 2025/26, the defence budget rises to R53.7 billion and for 2026/27 it increases to R56.2 billion, but considering inflation is over 5%, this represents a decline in real terms.

Defence expert Dean Wingrin called this a “disaster for the SANDF and it’s abilities to carry out its missions.”

Defence spending is now about .7% of GDP, versus the international norm of 2% of GDP, putting strain on an overstretched SANDF that is carrying out deployments in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, internally and on South Africa’s borders.

“Already unable to pay for critical spares, maintenance and upgrades, the external deployments may be in serious trouble,” Wingrin cautioned. “With the Navy’s budget down 0.72%, the death knell is sounding. The SAAF is not far behind.”

According to the latest budget document, Reserve Force mandays have been cut to 1.9 million a year from 2023/24 onwards, down from 2.8 million in 2022/23, in order to save money. Air Force hours are targeted at 12 000 a year and sea hours at 8 000, but it’s unlikely these will be met due to a lack of serviceable equipment and funding for operations.

Indeed, much of the defence budget (64.8%) is going towards the compensation of employees. “This includes an additional allocation of R7.6 billion over the next three years to cater for adjustments arising from the 2023/24 public sector wage agreement and for the deployment of South African National Defence Force members in support of the South African Police Service during the 2024 national and provincial elections,” the budget document read. (The police and defence are also allocated an additional R350 million to support elections.)

“Despite this additional allocation, the budget for compensation of employees remains under pressure. To minimise the impact of the shortfall, the department will continue to manage commuted overtime, recruit new members through the military skills development system only every alternate calendar year, reduce its number of personnel through natural attrition, and cap annual increases for regimental and operational allowances.”

Personnel numbers are expected to increase slightly, from 70 900 at present to 73 400 in 2026/27.

“Cabinet-approved budget reductions amounting to R5.3 billion over the [three year] MTEF [Medium Term Expenditure Framework] period include reductions on transfers to the Armaments Corporation of South Africa of R155.6 million in 2024/25, R162.7 million in 2025/26 and R170.2 million in 2026/27.

“To minimise the impact of these reductions, the department plans to continue to increase its use of technology – such as unmanned aerial vehicles, thermal cameras, and night vision and long-range cameras – in its operations. It also plans to review its programmes to identify inefficiencies, redundancies and areas where costs can be cut without compromising core defence capabilities critical to national security.”

Guarding South Africa’s borders and supporting the police

To safeguard the integrity of South Africa’s borders, the department of defence will continue to prioritise the acquisition of vehicles and technology that will serve as a force multiplier. This approach is expected to increase the range of the borderline under protection and help in preventing illegal border crossings, smuggling and other activities that could compromise national security, the budget document stated.

“The department will also continue to support the South African Police Service to address internal security challenges. These activities are carried out through allocations in the Support to the People subprogramme in the Force Employment programme, which has a budget of R3.9 billion over the next three years.”

Maintaining infrastructure

To provide for day-to-day and preventative maintenance and emergency repairs, and to augment the shortfall within municipal services, R1.9 billion over the MTEF period is reallocated from the Administration programme to the General Support programme.

“This reallocation is mainly due to a budget shortfall in the General Support programme after the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure allowed departments to perform day-today maintenance and repairs of up to R1 million without the necessary funding from that department,” the budget document explained.

“The shortfall in municipal services is mainly due to historical arrears to municipalities after the devolution of the responsibility to pay and manage municipal accounts moved from the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure to client departments with effect from 1 April 2020.”

Supporting peace in the region

As part of South Africa’s commitment to regional stability, the department will continue its peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. “To address the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the pending withdrawal of the United Nations mission there, an additional 2 900 South African National Defence Force members are expected to be deployed in that country in 2024/25 at a projected cost of R2.4 billion,” the defence budget read.

“The cost of deployment in Mozambique is R850 million in 2024/25. Allocations for peace support operations are within the Regional Security subprogramme in the Force Employment programme, which has a budget of R2.6 billion over the MTEF period.”

Regarding the SAAF allocation, Wingrin calls it “a disaster” as the helicopter line, critical for supporting troops in the DRC and Mozambique (as well as the citizens within SA), has even less funding allocated than last year.

“I know South Africa is facing critical social issues, but then don’t deploy troops into harm’s way. Either support them, or withdraw them,” Wingrin said of the SANDF’s external deployments.

“The Minister of Finance says the SANDF mission in DRC will not be financed from the Defence budget, but that they are still looking at it! Seriously? The troops are already there, some have already died. And he is still looking at how to fund them? The Defence Force is in crisis.”