South Africa’s military meltdown

On the face of it, life continues as normal, but behind the scenes the South African military has been cut to the point where it's doubtful it will be able to live up to its African responsibilities.

The South African military – once feared across much of Africa – is today in steep decline. Its budget has been slashed; its equipment unserviced and unserviceable and its troops demoralised. In the 1980s – at the height of apartheid – the country spent four per cent of GDP on the military. Today that figure stands at around one per cent. While cuts were certainly justified, the scale of the reductions has done lasting damage to the Defence Force.

This is, of course, not the impression the Ministry of Defence provides the South African public. On the face of it, life continues as normal. A major military exercise is currently under way with the United States military.

And South African troops are being readied for deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to participate in what the United Nation describes as its first-ever “offensive” combat force. This is intended to carry out targeted operations to “neutralise and disarm” the notorious M23 rebels currently operating around the eastern town of Goma, as the United Nations press release put it.

This must have come as news to the South African military, since they were soon denying (pdf) any intention of fighting the Rwandan backed rebels. “We (SANDF) have consistently indicated that we have not engaged any rebel force in the in the eastern DRC and we repeat that that remains the case,” a press statement from the Ministry of Defence declared on 16 July. Since bringing a semblance of stability to the Goma area was the reason the force was created and this would inevitably mean fighting the M23, it is not clear what element of the plan the South Africans failed to grasp.

Leaving this confusion aside, there are real questions about the South African military’s ability to go on mounting such operations. The past few months have seen a series of setbacks.

  • Earlier this month it was revealed that the Air Force has no maintenance contract for the 26 Grippen fighter jets, ordered at great cost in 1999. Without maintenance they aircraft are almost useless.
     
  • None of the Air Force’s Agusta light utility helicopters are flying any more, because there are no funds for the exercises.
     
  • One of South Africa’s submarines – the SAS Queen Modjadji - had its outer hull damaged after hitting the seabed. This led to questions in Parliament, with calls for those responsible to be disciplined, and complaints that the accident “speaks of negligence and poor training.”
     
  • The main naval shipyard, at Simonstown, is running at less than a third of the capacity required to service the fleet, and is – according to the Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Refiloe Mudimu -  unable to recruit the skilled staff it requires.
     

These issues come after years of grumbling from pilots, who said they lacked fuel and ammunition for routine exercises, and left for Australia, New Zealand and other destinations in droves. Only six trained Grippen pilots were said to remain earlier this year, eking out 150 hours flying time over the whole year.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has called for a crisis meeting on the subject – pointing out that while funding is not available for essentials, the Air Force has been required to provide R50m (£3.4m) to fly government VIPS around the country and on foreign jaunts. “The South African Air Force are in danger of being reduced to an airborne taxi service for VIPs," said DA defence spokesman, David Maynier.

According to Helmoed Heitmann, South African correspondent of Jane’s Defence Weekly, there is another critical issue, which no-one dares mention: the military is badly over-manned. “They need to kick out around 20,000 people,” Heitmann told the New Statesman. “But the authorities know if they do this, they will put men on the streets who have access to guns and an ability to use them. They would only end up filling the jails.” As a result the 88,000 strong military can’t be slimmed down, in line with its reduced budget. 

Heitmann believes the R40bn funding (1.1 per cent of GDP) would need to be doubled to provide South Africa with a force that can really meet the defence needs of the country.

“At present the Defence Force can provide border protection, one African peacekeeping operation and can either patrol South Africa’s own waters or fight piracy in the Mozambique channel – but not both,” says Heitmann.

Hanging over the debate is the perennial question of the corruption in the $4.8bn 1999 Arms Deal. This is a ghost that refuses to depart. Last month there were fresh revelations that the former chairman of Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence, Tony Yengeni, signed a R6mn kickback deal with a German company providing frigates for South Africa. Yengeni refused to confirm or deny the allegation. He told the Mail & Guardian newspaper “I’ve got nothing to say on all you’re saying”.

A Commission of Inquiry into the Arms Deal was announced in 2011. It has yet to begin hearing witnesses. Commission critics say they have lost faith in its investigation, since they are being denied the right to cross-question witnesses. This is only the latest criticism of the Commission, which was previously accused of failing in its duty, for claiming that there is no evidence implicating the ANC in Arms Deal corruption.

While all this is serious, the real calamity is that South Africa  - one of the few democracies on the continent that had an effective military - is so limited in its ability to live up to its African responsibilities. Sending troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo is fine, but what about Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and the other conflicts that need to be addressed? As long as Pretoria starves its armed forces of the necessary funds, these needs will go unanswered, or the African Union will have to turn to the United States, France or Britain to pull its irons out of the fire. 

An honour guard lines up for the arrival of the US President at the Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa in June 2013. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.