South Africa's Military-Arms Cesspit

By Dale T. McKinley · 15 Oct 2014

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Picture: Chief of Defence Solly Shoke and Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr
Picture: Chief of Defence Solly Shoke and Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is drowning in a sea of mismanagement, corruption, political manipulation and strategic myopia.

While this state of affairs will probably not result in an imminent ‘attack’ on the Union Buildings, as was the case in 2009 when justifiably angry rank-and-file soldiers protested over conditions of service, the ongoing fallout is much worse.  

It’s hard to know where to begin but let’s start with the basics. Section 200(1) of the Constitution states that, “the defence force must be structured and managed as a disciplined military force”. If we take the standard dictionary definition of discipline to mean “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience”, then it is clear that those who are in charge of structuring and managing the SANDF are in serious breach of its core constitutional imperative.

There is a litany of such ‘indiscipline’. Despite a mountain of evidence stemming from the 1990's arms deal detailing gross mismanagement and corruption involving SANDF and Department of Defence (DOD) officials as well as senior politicians, hardly any of those responsible have been held to even the most minimal of disciplinary standards.

The ongoing official investigation into the arms deal - the Seriti Commission - is turning out to be more of a whitewash than a clean-up. As has become the standard practice of SANDF and DOD officials as well as associated politicians, the main agenda of the Seriti Commission appears to be to ensure that the myriad ‘indisciplines’ are shielded from any meaningful democratic scrutiny and action.

When the SANDF deployed over 1000 soldiers to the DRC in June 2013 the generals and politicians spoke glowingly about the professionalism of South Africa’s defence forces and their contribution to ‘peace-keeping’ in Africa but did not tell us that the soldiers lacked some of the most basic equipment. It was only through an associated court case later that the Minister of Defence was forced to admit that “our soldiers do not have tents ... [and] ... our soldiers have no parachute equipment”.

While the rank-and-file soldiers in conflict zones were being treated like 2nd class citizens, SANDF head honcho, Lt. General Solly Shoke spent over R100 000 of taxpayers money flying 1st class to a conference in Malaysia earlier this year.

The DOD has brazenly cast a veil of secrecy over its recent attempts to buy a new luxury VIP jet (no prize for guessing who the beneficiaries are) worth almost R2 billion. When parliamentary questions were asked, Defence Secretary Dr Sam Gulube noted that the matter was a “sensitive project” (read: classified) because it had been conveniently shifted to a ‘Strategic Capital Acquisition Master Plan’ project list, no doubt a secret itself. Public knowledge about a SANDF deal for purchasing over 200 armoured infantry vehicles worth close to R15 billion was zilch until the actions of some brave whistleblowers.

These instances are just the tip of the mismanagement-cum-corruption filled iceberg. There are a range of arms acquisition programmes already underway or in the pipeline that are all but invisible to parliament and the citizenry. According to Defence Web, besides the armoured infantry vehicles the Army is pursuing projects to purchase large numbers of armoured personnel carriers and trucks to replace the present fleets. In parallel, the Navy is seeking to acquire new ‘inshore and offshore patrol vessels’ while the Air Force is shopping for new maritime patrol aircraft as well as light and heavy air transport  

When opposition parliamentarians recently asked Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula for further details of the SANDF acquisition projects she refused, stating that the information does not belong in the public domain. Not to be outdone in the secrecy stakes, Defence Secretary Gulube told parliament’s defence committee that any attempts to enforce greater scrutiny of the government’s arms procurement programmes would be a threat to national security.

All of this has to be set against the backdrop of the 2014 Defence Force Review which has been approved by the Cabinet and is now making its way through parliament’s labyrinthine corridors.

Despite receiving R42 billion in the 2014/15 budget and untold billions more continuing to be spent on the 1990s arms deal and on other acquisition projects that we know little to nothing about, the Review unequivocally acknowledges that the SANDF is in a “critical state of decline”. It lists a host of serious problems and crises:

  • The escalating costs associated with the purchase, use and maintenance of the 1990s arms deal programme has resulted in a majority of the fighter planes, helicopters, training jets and naval vessels purchased being mothballed. Those that are in use suffer from chronic under-use and a lack of technical/ maintenance personnel and trained pilots.
  • Spares, general equipment, ammunition stocks and fuel reserves are “generally depleted”. One instructive example of the resultant impact is that South Africa now has “little airspace or maritime domain awareness” (read: the SANDF can hardly track who and what is in South African airspace and waters).
  • Nearly 55% of the overall budget is spent on personnel costs, even though SANDF rank-and-file earn relatively little. Despite increased personnel spending, there is a massive shortage of competent personnel at all levels and those with scarce and professional skills are leaving at “concerning rates”.
  • Practical training and exercises have been cut to the bone such that the SANDF is unable to “execute [its] widening spectrum of tasks” while medical care to SANDF personnel is in a generalised state of crisis (regardless of the upgrading and construction of new military hospitals).
  • The SANDF suffers from “fragmented management and information systems [that] inhibit integrated and systemic decision making”.
Predictably though, the Review’s solution to these systemic crises of decision-making, strategic planning and human and financial management is to throw more money into the SANDF pit in order for it to carry out its “constitutional requirements”. Those “requirements” are interpreted as revolving largely around a military “strategic posture” defined by the “the role that it wishes to play both regionally and continentally”. In other words not, as the actual Constitution states, “to defend and protect the Republic its territorial integrity and its people…” but to satisfy a politically constructed and elite centred ‘need’ to play big brother in Africa.

If the Review is approved by parliament then we can expect to see over the next decade, a massive increase in unnecessary military spending, more avenues opened up for corrupt practices, a further concentration of power in the military-intelligence cluster  and even less democratic oversight and transparency.

We should all take the words of Andrew Feinstein, that fearless exposer and critic of the South African and global arms trade, to heart. He warns us that this ‘shadow world’ “often makes us poorer, not richer, less not more safe and governed not in our own interests but for the benefit of a small, self-serving elite, seemingly above the law, protected by the secrecy of national security and accountable to no one.”

Before it is too late, South Africans need to not only actively demand accountability for past ‘indisciplines’ and abuse of public funds and trust but ensure that our military forces and projects focus on what they are supposed to do - to serve and answer to, the people.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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Rory Verified user
17 Oct

Elite Defence

The root of these and other government misdemeanours lies in our political system which makes it too easy for an elite to capture the system. What should be built into our Constitution is the people's right to immediate recall any elected official who is not carrying out the mandate for which they were elected. The absence of this in our Constitution makes a mockery of our democracy.

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