The South African National Defence Force at 30: Balancing political aspirations with budgetary realities

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As the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) approaches its 30th anniversary in April 2024, it is pertinent to reflect on its journey as a military institution over the past three decades. What are the prevailing issues affecting operational efficacy and its role as a policy tool of the government?

Here, I highlight five key considerations:
Firstly, since the dawn of South Africa’s post-1994, notably towards the end of the Mandela presidency, the SANDF has been increasingly involved in peace and security operations on the continent. This engagement, notably in Lesotho (1998), the DRC (1999), Burundi (2003), Sudan (2008), and most recently Mozambique (2021), as well as several previous smaller external operations, has been emblematic of South Africa’s foreign policy ethos. However, this expanded role has placed strains on the SANDF’s resources and capabilities.

Secondly, while the government aimed to align South Africa’s image with the promotion of human rights and peace in Africa, official defence policies continued to prioritise safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity. This led to the procurement of high-tech equipment, as outlined in the 1998 South African Defence Review wherein it is stipulated that the specific force design required for South Africa should be a high-technology core force, sized for peacetime, but expandable to meet an emerging threat.

It was eventually concluded that the SANDF should be designed for its “primary object” and that it must execute secondary functions, notably operations of peace and security through the collateral utility of its conventional defence capabilities. However, relying on conventional defence capabilities for secondary functions, such as peacekeeping, has proven problematic over time. Since 1998, the SANDF has featured prominently as an instrument in South Africa’s foreign policy. Still, increasingly the so-called secondary functions have become the SANDF’s primary function with involvement in peacekeeping operations taking a key role in the SANDF’s external activities.

Thirdly, budgetary constraints have increasingly hampered SANDF operations, with defence expenditure hovering below 1.2% of GDP since 2000. Recent data indicates a worrying trend, with a noticeable decline in spending, exacerbating the SANDF’s underfunded status. According to the South African Defence Review of 2015, the SANDF was effectively 24% underfunded in terms of its size and shape. What is alarming is that the trend of lower spending on defence is continuing, as recent data shows that spending in 2022/23 was 8.4% lower than in 2021 and 21% lower than in 2013. Of course, the country’s ailing economy and low growth trajectory have placed severe constraints on government finances, necessitating lower state expenditure.

Fourthly, as relates to the previous points, the acquisition of high-tech equipment since the end of the 1990s has not translated into operational effectiveness as regards serviceability and functionality. In a shocking revelation made towards the end of 2023, the Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise disclosed the dire situation within the SA Air Force (SAAF). She acknowledged that a staggering 85% of the SAAF’s aircraft fleet was out of action, leaving South Africa vulnerable to external security threats. From the high-tech equipment that was purchased at the end of the 1990s, only two of the 26 Gripen fighter aircraft and three of the 24 Hawk aircraft were available for service. Furthermore, more than half of the SAAF’s fleet – a staggering 53% was inoperable. The funding crisis is so severe that some defence analysts have started to propose the unthinkable – to reduce the SAAF to a mere Air Wing with less than 75 aircraft.

The SA Navy (SAN) is in no better position than the SAAF. Already in 2013, three of the SAN’s frigates were broken or dysfunctional in one or the other way, while a fourth had been cannibalised for parts. All frigates are in urgent need of repairs and their weapon systems must be replaced or repaired. As with the frigates, the three submarines that were part of the arms deal also contained only a limited number of spares. Scheduled and regular maintenance on submarines is even more critical than it is for frigates. One of the submarines has already been cannibalised and at times none of the submarines is serviceable.

Furthermore, the role and focus of the SANDF post-1994 – especially that of the SA Army – have evidently shifted to operations in the realm of peace and security. Recently, shortly before it was decided in New York to terminate the UN peacekeeping operation in the eastern DRC, the SANDF was the fifth largest troop-contributing nation in the UN’s operation. Currently it plays a role as the ‘lead nation’ in the eastern DRC against the persistent rebel forces, including the highly potent M23 rebel group. At the same time, it also acts as the ‘lead nation’ in the SADC operation in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province against bloodthirsty Muslim extremist insurgents who de facto rule much of the province. Military experts rightly argue that our soldiers in the field sometimes do not receive the required logistical support while poor coordination with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation often leaves the country embarrassed by these endeavours.

Fifthly, border protection and support for the SAPS in internal operations have become increasingly important in the SANDF’s activities and responsibilities and may be regarded as among its primary functions. What is clear though is that the SANDF is too often used as a stopgap measure or as an institution in South Africa’s domestic security scene. Increasingly, two issues are having an impact on the growing footprint of the SANDF in South Africa’s domestic security landscape: firstly, a dwindling capacity of the SAPS to police the country’s domestic security landscape and secondly, a shift in political views that increasingly leans toward domestic military deployments. In terms of the latter the military is basically viewed as a handy instrument to assist or even step into policing roles and functions, when necessary.

In conclusion, what has developed over the three decades is a clear disjuncture between the past and present in terms of the political expectations placed on the SANDF and its actual capabilities and financial resources. The challenge for the SANDF is to not forget that conventional defence is still central to the raison d’etre for its existence, but also to be ready and responsive to political calls to assist in operations in the realm of peace and security in the region or on the continent at large. In addition, the SANDF often needs to support the SAPS in delivering security services in a crime-ridden and fragile South African society. With this in mind and that approximately only 1% of the country’s GDP budget is allocated to the military it is no wonder that the SANDF is often described as institutionally overstretched and has, in fact, for some time been in a critical state of ongoing decline.

Written by Prof Theo Neethling, Department of Political Studies and Governance of the University of the Free State.

This article was first published on News24 here.

It can also be found on the University of the Free State website here and is republished with permission.