Repurposing of SANDF needed to tackle terrorism and border insecurity – Kobus Marais


The insurgency by Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ) in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado has provided an opportunity for Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states to gain practical experience in the fight against terrorism. Combatting the relatively new threat, at least for SADC states, means militaries, including the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), shifting away from conventional warfare.

Kobus Marais, Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, who will be speaking at defenceWeb’s Countering the Insurgency in Mozambique virtual event on 16 November, believes the South African National Defence Force needs to analyse how prepared it is for terrorism, and shift away from conventional warfare to secure the country’s borders and fight insurgents.

Terrorism in Southern Africa

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Terrorism in Southern Africa is a threat that cannot be understated. Globalisation and the development of communication technology has provided terrorist cells in the Middle East and Africa the opportunity to share training, tactics, resources and information. “We know that the sea (Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea) is being used as a major route for the insurgents. They don’t have their harbour (Mocimboa da Praia) anymore but there is still a coast,” Marais told defenceWeb. The level of communication and provision of resources from the Islamic State (IS) to ASWJ is unknown, but security experts widely acknowledge it is happening.

Last year, IS warned South Africa not to get involved in Cabo Delgado. Security experts, including Marias, also believe there are Islamist terrorist cells in South Africa but due to South Africa’s nonaggressive role in Cabo Delgado, Marais believes those cells will not “activate” (commit acts of terrorism).

ASWJ tactics have been offensive since 2017, with the group seeking to denounce the Mozambican government, drive citizens out of their homes, kill civilians and security forces and control key towns and ports in Cabo Delgado. The ineffective efforts of the Mozambican military (FADM) allowed the locally grown insurgent group to increase membership, gain legitimacy as an insurgency and destabilise northern Mozambique.

Since intervention in July, SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and Rwandan forces have been recording notable successes against ASWJ, clearing insurgent bases and killing leaders like Awadhi Ndanjile, who was instrumental in recruiting and indoctrinating ASWJ members. Insurgents are getting pushed north as they come up against a multinational force that is too strong for ASWJ to fight directly. Consequently, traditional terror methods such as the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and guerrilla tactics may soon be adopted by ASWJ.

SANDF soldiers and materials committed to the SADC force in July under Operation Vikela will remain part of the SADC Mission in Mozambique until at least mid-January. “Currently it’s a SADC intervention…,” Marais said. “To a large extent we form the outer perimeter of this operation taking place.” The SANDF has deployed its Special Forces to Mozambique to provide reconnaissance and surveillance.

SAMIM is currently staffed by soldiers and military personnel from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania. Rwanda has deployed 2 000 soldiers to take an offensive role in the conflict.

Rethinking the role of the SANDF

The SANDF is a force with a small, employee-heavy budget, and ageing equipment. The threats faced by this conventional warfare force today are different to the threats faced decades ago. Today, terrorism and border security are the biggest threats to South Africa’s sovereignty. Reassessing the mandate of the SANDF, restructuring, and forming key international partnerships could be a solution towards securing South Africa’s porous borders and ensuring terrorism does not spread in the Southern African region, Marais believes.

The SANDF is heavily scrutinised for a large portion of its budget going towards the compensation of employees. “This government has obviously been involved in running this defence force down to the levels we have at the moment,” explained Marais. Additionally, the bloated ranks and command structure of the SANDF is not helping financial issues. “We have a total mushroom top structure at the moment where it [the SANDF] is top heavy and we should totally redesign that,” added Marais.

A lighter, more flexible, and updated version of the SANDF, according to Marais, is needed. “I think the threats are different from the past…There is still infrastructure and equipment that was used for conventional warfare…We don’t need that; it is unlikely that you will ever in the future have a conventional warfare threat like the old South Africa had,” said Marais.

The threat of porous borders is understated. Currently, rhino horn, abalone, scorpions, reptiles, pangolins and other animals or animal parts are being smuggled out of the country. A substantial amount of copper is being stolen and leaving the country through our ports. Vehicles are being stolen and driven out of the country, particularly to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Human trafficking is a serious issue. Cocaine and other drugs are coming into South Africa from the west and heroin, marijuana and illegal cigarettes are coming in from the east. And every month, thousands of illegal immigrants cross South Africa’s borders.

The country has 4 862 km of land borders that are safeguarded by the SANDF under the Operation Corona border protection tasking. Fifteen companies are a part of Operation Corona but more than 20 companies are required to maintain South Africa’s territorial integrity.

“If the rest of the world could hopefully be involved and support what is going on [the insurgency in Cabo Delgado]…I think it will relieve our responsibilities so we can concentrate on our own borders,” Marais said.

South Africa, Marais maintains, is unwilling to accept the relevant international assistance for the SANDF. The United States, for example, has tremendous experience in securing its borders and conducting anti-terrorism operations, and the European Union is an eager partner regarding counter-terrorism. “Unfortunately, South Africa seems to believe in the Cubans and no one else,” Marais said. The African National Congress (ANC) has a great amount of loyalty to the former communist countries that aided them in their fight against apartheid.

In addition to the US Department of Justice training and military training by other countries, the European Union has launched the European Union Military Training Mission in Mozambique. “These countries are so prepared to provide us with assistance but there is a total political reluctance,” said Marais.

Marais believes restructuring and repurposing the SANDF comes down to political will. Although defence is not a vote-wining topic, previous Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, said the people must decide what defence force they want. However, “We are not involved in deciding what do we need and want,” said Marais.

Efforts towards preventing the spread of terrorism in Southern Africa and securing South Africa’s porous borders mean adjusting the scope of the SANDF and possibly aligning South Africa with partners who have ‘skin in the game’, Marais believes.

defenceWeb will on 16 November examine regional and international efforts to counter the violence in Mozambique, through a new virtual conference, with the theme ‘Developing a multi-theatre approach to restoring peace in Cabo Delgado’.

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