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?

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution