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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times