Why the SANDF matters for South Africa’s democratic freedoms


In South Africa, the 27th of April is Freedom Day – a public holiday meant for the celebration of freedom and the commemoration of South Africa’s first ‘racially’ inclusive, democratic elections, held in 1994.

Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and other like-minded South Africans had high hopes these elections would pave the way for the creation of a ‘rainbow nation,’ a ‘new South Africa,’ in which its citizens and the diverse people and social groups to which they belong would come to experience the freedoms equally due to all South Africans by the mere fact that we are all human beings, who, from Tutu’s religious perspective at least, are created in the image of God.

From a political or constitutional perspective, the overarching measure or definition of freedom in South Africa is found in the combination of rights and freedoms cited in the country’s Bill of Rights – Chapter 2 of South Africa’s Constitution. The Bill of Rights reads, “The state must respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights.” Since freedom involves the right or power to do something, every right cited in the Bill of Rights involves or implies the existence of a freedom or freedoms. Because both rights and freedoms are fundamental to democracy, the Constitution can also be interpreted as the state having an obligation or responsibility to “respect, protect, promote and fulfill” South Africa’s democratic freedoms.

To assist the South African state with this responsibility, the government that runs the state has at its disposal a military in the form of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), established on Freedom Day, twenty-eight years ago. Because the SANDF specialises in the management and application of violence, it exists, at minimum, to defend the democratic state and the freedoms within it against foreign aggression. Consider, here, the realist perspective on international relations. Readers in any further doubt about the need for a defence force should speak to the Ukrainians.

The defence of the South African state against foreign aggression is significant, because, without a state that guarantees democracy, there can be no democratic freedoms. This is why, on the occasion of appointing the Chief of the SANDF and members of the Military Command of the SANDF in Freedom Month 2021, President Ramaphosa concluded his address by reminding those promoted “of the assignment that history has bestowed on them – to be the guardians of democracy, of peace and of freedom.” In the same vein, although in a more negative sense, former South African Air Force (SAAF) officer, Simphiwe Hamilton wrote in 2020 that “SA’s deliberate and predictable underfunding of defence function is a threat to its democracy and economic growth.”

As an arm or component of the state, the responsibilities of the SANDF, as they pertain to the Constitution, extend well beyond defence against external aggression. Whether or not this expansion of roles is wise in all respects, the SANDF exists and is mandated in theoretical, legislative and policy terms, to protect South Africa, and by implication, its democratic freedoms, against threats of different kinds. These threats include those that can originate from outside and from within the state, involve state or non-state actors, and take on visible or invisible, direct or indirect forms, but all with tangible effects for the South African state, its people and their democratic freedoms.

This explains the wide array of operations the SANDF has consequently been involved with and conducted in its twenty-eight-year existence. Among these are the SANDF’s participation in peace missions, its ongoing involvement with counterinsurgency operations in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, and a growing repertoire of internal or domestic deployments and activities. On the last of these, Professor Abel Esterhuyse of Stellenbosch University refers to a “revival of internal military deployment”.

Over recent years, the domestic deployment and activities of the SANDF have included, but are not necessarily limited to, farming and rural development, the cleaning up of the Vaal River, the provision of health services, the building of bridges, and combating gangsterism and crime. More recently, the SANDF deployed to assist with measures against the spread of COVID-19, to help contain violence and looting in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), to stand on “election duty,” and to engage in anti-poaching activities. At the time of writing the SANDF is on deployment in KZN to assist with flood relief.

It is no secret that the ability of the SANDF to execute its constitutional mandate has been in question for some time. The South African Defence Review 2015 reads, “The Defence Force is in a critical state of decline.” This observation has been repeated almost every year since, including in 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. It hasn’t been surprising, therefore, to learn that soldiers deployed in response to the July 2021 unrest in Gauteng and KZN complained of a lack of food, vehicles and fuel; that South Africa’s special forces deployed in Mozambique in mid-2021, to fight Islamic insurgents were overstretched due to a lack of “infantry back-up or adequate air support,” and that soldiers deployed on the same mission have been given bad rations, or that there has been a delay in water relief by the SANDF for victims of the current flooding in KZN.

There is no question about whether the SANDF’s ever-dwindling budget is central to the organisation’s decline and growing concerns over its ability to fulfil its constitutional obligations. However, of equal, if not greater importance than budgetary matters, are issues of leadership and the SANDF’s organisational culture. Lt Col (Dr) Willem Erasmus, Lt Col (Prof) Abel Esterhuyse, Col (Dr) Petrus Bester, and Cdr (Prof) Ishmael Theletsane are all members of the SANDF working from the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Military Science. They have reflected, some more directly than others, on the leadership challenges facing South Africa’s defence force.

Professors Theo Neethling and Lindy Heinecken, in their cautions against using the SANDF to fight crime, and Dr Savo Heleta, who has criticised the notion of using soldiers for humanitarian work,  have all reflected on matters relevant to the SANDF’s organisational culture.  Still, not enough has been said from a theoretical perspective about this aspect of South Africa’s defence force, particularly as it pertains to the SANDF’s organisational behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic and what the SANDF’s organisational culture means for South Africa’s democratic freedoms. This is the purpose of my forthcoming paper, Fighting an invisible enemy: The South African National Defence Force and COVID-19 – A commentary on military leadership, culture and values in an African democracy.

In explaining why the military poses a problem for civil society and especially democracy, Dr David Chuter, who was involved with South Africa’s post-1994 defence transformation, writes as follows: “Once it is understood that the military’s role is to provide violence, or the threat of it at the behest of the state, it becomes clear why…the military cannot be run like a democracy, and civil society cannot – and must not – be run like the military.” Put differently, with specific reference to the South African context, the SANDF exists to defend and protect democracy, not to exercise it.

While the military is necessary for defending the state, whether democratic or not, the organisational culture that enables it to do so effectively, explains the controversy over using armed forces for humanitarian work and over deploying the military internally, especially in a democracy. Not long after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, The Economist published a piece in which the author wrote, “armed forces are designed first and foremost for killing people, rather than issuing fines on street corners or delivering food to supermarkets.”

Therefore, the further the nature of military operations has been removed from conventional warfare or combat, the more military personnel, globally, have had to contend with and be cognisant of notions of human dignity, the ‘human terrain,’ human security and human freedoms. In cases where armed forces have had to deploy in their own democratic countries, as was the case during COVID-19, they also had to confront more diligently and conscientiously the rules and regulations governing defence in a democracy, and by implication, the rules and regulations protecting democratic freedoms.

The SANDF has been known to struggle with these expectations, including within its institution. This reality is something that COVID-19 reaffirmed as SANDF leaders and personnel more broadly failed to exercise due diligence and military professionalism during the pandemic in as far as submission to parliamentary oversight (democratic control), respecting human rights, exercising accountability, procurement, human resource management, and transparent communication were concerned.

One measure of whether a constitutional democracy like South Africa is a living democracy is the extent to which human dignity and freedoms have shifted from being expressed solely as concepts or ideas, as they are in the Constitution and the Code of Conduct for Uniformed Members of the SANDF, to gaining prominence in the physical and behavioural realities of the nation. If South Africa’s political leaders persist with authorising domestic military deployment and activities in South Africa, and if these deployments and activities are to advance democratic freedoms rather than detracting from them, South Africa’s defence force will have to undergo a second post-94 transformation, this time with an intentional focus on organisational culture.

 This piece first appeared in the Daily Maverick.

Written by Craig Bailie, Founding Director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy.