Opinion: South Africa deserves accountable defence force leadership


The whole nation has and continues to rightfully applaud the deployment of the military in support of the South African Police, who are seemingly overwhelmed by the recent acts of public unrest, violence, looting, and destruction of business properties and infrastructure which the President correctly described it as “Failed Insurrection due to lack of popular support”.

The deployment of military boots on the ground has not only assisted stabilising the situation and stopped the carnage, but also served as deterrence. Some of the masterminds behind the recent public disorder and who are still undetected and loosely roaming and mingling amongst law abiding and responsible citizens will probably think twice before they re-engage in acts of sabotage. But this should not, in any way, suggest any signs of naivety on the part of National Executive and Security Sector, for history always repeats itself.

Having said this, there are a few troubling issues, including Defence Force leadership approach to military posture and practice which suggests, somehow, an element of losing sight of the standard operational practice as informed, by and large, by military doctrine and guided by defence strategy.

Consciously, the Nation had, as early as 2000, commissioned an analytical and review process aimed at redesigning the defence force and its posture with the view to guiding its approaches to the conduct of its core business. On the basis of scarcity of national resources, optimal use of available security resources, conforming to the current trends in military approach to operations, among other thematic issues, three strategies were designed and adopted as the outcome of the said process, namely, Force Preparation, Joint Force Employment and Joint Force Support.

Accordingly, all Arms of Services, including the South African Army, the South African Air Force and South African Navy, were designed to prepare (force training) and provide combat ready forces for employment by a designated Joint Operations Division, a structure established for Joint Force Employment, a complete departure from the previous practice. Before being streamlined for the new approach and practice, the referred Arms of Services were conducting both force preparation and force employment, respectively.

Whether or not the idea to change was plausible, the National Assembly and National Executive had approved of and sanctioned the force design for the effective and efficient conduct of the South African National Defence Force core business. The South African Military Health Service and all the established divisions were designated to provide joint support, with the exception of Defence Intelligence which continued to provide both.

Any second thoughts and new ideas regarding the current defence design and any function-shift by the current Military Command Council and Defence Command Council should be filtered through a process of re-appreciation or review, the product of which requires approval by National Assembly and National Executive, respectively. What we are witnessing with this current military deployment is the unilateral deployment of the South African Army outside the approved force design and strategy, therefore rendering a designated, established, funded and mandated structure of Joint Operations Division inactive and useless.

The important question is: Has the Defence Force leadership mandated to change the course? If so, have the National Assembly and National Executive approved of and sanctioned these new developments? If not, the Defence Force leadership owes the nation an answer. Notwithstanding the fact of opening its flanks for legal investigative processes should operations deliver undesirable outcomes.

The second observation with the military deployment is the employment of hard core prime mission equipment: armoured vehicles in the form of tanks, which is meant to respond against the threat of conventional war setting. Have the recent failed insurrection events from 12 July suggested any conventional threat against the country to warrant the operational use of these vehicles? Apart from being heavy in fuel and operational costs, could this be not act of intimidation than what is expected to be deterrence? The prevailing situational threat is far from being categorised, equated and deduced as conventional. What informs the employment of these types of vehicles? Less the Military Commanders realise that they have less than lethal weapons in their inventory, which is more user friendly and effective than intimidating hard prime mission equipment. This is also a golden opportunity to develop better doctrine in support of the South African Police during emergencies requiring the enforcement of State Authority, rather than being toothless … with no bite.

The third worrying factor is witnessing a military general leading in front of plus four men stick with his pistol and one wonders what concept of operation is employed and which doctrine to this effect that informs the Military Commanders? The disturbing negative implication out of these propagated practices is leaving baseless legacy to remain, resonate and mislead the minds of the young and junior members of the South African National Defence Force now and in future.

The last issue to raise and which calls for the public to be educated is the Flag Hoisting Parade performed by the military at the Jean Crossing Mall. This sends out mixed messages and opens up a variety of interpretations with inferences to suggest the military reign. The country is neither under state of emergency nor under martial law usually imposed by military administration. In this respect what informs these military impositions on the democratic, civilian and public discourse? In Isixhosa, it is said, “Inqayi ingena ngentlontlo” (meaning that major incidents have insignificant beginnings). If the Defence Force leadership is allowed to do official business as it pleases, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, military commanders get allowed to smuggle these unusual military attitudes and behavioural tendencies to raise their ugly heads in the conduct of official business, it will be to our national peril.

This is perceived as an unqualified military activity seeking to, subtly, subjugate the whole public under unusual and abnormal life conditions and can also be seen as tantamount to militarisation of the entire citizenry.

In conclusion, developments come with creative and innovative initiatives and dynamic enough to allow constant evaluation and re-evaluation of policies and practices. Should the Defence leadership deem it fit to change the course and sees a need for function shift within the military establishment, it is welcome to initiate policy engagements and approval processes to remain within the prescripts of legal framework. Conducting national business outside the existing legal framework and official permissible practices is worrisome.

Part of the challenge seems to be emanating from clear sacrifice of institutional memory for the mere expediency of being in good books of seniors – a tendency that is alien and not contributing to the process of arriving at proper and sound decisions. At operational and strategic levels, we expect rigorous analysis in the quest to reach at the most viable plan.

Written by Major General (rtd) Ashton M Sibango, former Chief of Staff of the South African National Defence Force’s Joint Operations Division.