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?

Steve Bannon with Donald Trump. Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump was Steve Bannon's creation. What happens now he's gone?

Steve Bannon championed the "economic nationalism" agenda which drove Trump's election win and the early days of his presidency.

Steve Bannon, perhaps more than any single person other than the man himself, is the reason Donald Trump is President of the United States.

Bannon is a choleric figure who once described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down”. It must be said that he has come pretty close to doing so. He served as chief architect of Trump's presidential campaign from the Republican national convention until election day, and then as the senior strategist in the Trump White House, a position from which he has just been ousted.

Why have I heard the name recently? It's very familiar, but in a weird context.

Well, until Friday he was the senior adviser to the president and one of the most powerful people in America.

No, that wasn't it. Something about... this doesn't sound right, but something about sucking his own...

...yeah. That was a quote from a gloriously unhinged phone call between Ryan Lizza, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine, and Anthony Scaramucci, who spent a week as White House Communications Director before being ignominiously canned, in part for giving this quote.

What he said exactly was: “I'm not Steve Bannon, I'm not trying to suck my own cock.”

Can Bannon actually do that?

According to rock and roll legend, Marilyn Manson had two of his own ribs surgically removed in order to autofellate; Bannon, by comparison, looks like he had two dozen ribs for breakfast already. The man is a crepuscular Hutt who looks like he'd rather smother his own firstborn than even enter a yoga studio. I would bet good money that he cannot.

I think Scaramucci meant it figuratively.

So apart from that, why is this such big news?

Bannon was responsible for Trump's victory, and for shaping his early presidency. He came on board at a key moment in the presidential race, after the debacle of the Republican convention, and was campaign CEO through to election day. He helped shape the Trump campaign into the white supremacist dog-whistle-fest that it became. The idea that, far from building coalitions, it was possible to run a campaign that would play directly to the core white male base was, in part, Bannon's particular inspiration.

As the former chief of the far-right news site Breitbart, Bannon was one of the key figures in the online radicalisation of the cluster of more-or-less white supremacist Hentai-fetishists who have come to be known as the “alt-right”. He is the thread that links Gamergate, the misogynistic troll campaign against female influence in video game production and industry news coverage, to what became Trump's rabid online following of lonely, racist white guys. The masses who became keyboard-warriors for Trump from their parents' basement, hanging out on The_Donald subreddit and 4chan's /pol/ board, were an army built by Bannon and Breitbart.

He popularised “economic nationalism”, a position based on the the twistedly brilliant insight that while making race the naked focus of the campaign would run up too hard against American political taboos, you could successfully use “trade” and “immigration” as effective proxies.

From Bannon also in part came the idea that Trump ought to run as much against the “mainstream media” as against his nominal opponent, Hillary Clinton. He brought his anarchic, burn-it-all-down ideology across from Breitbart – the website which Bannon once bragged about having made “the platform for the alt-right” – almost wholesale.

Most likely, Bannon is the reason it took Trump so long to condemn the neo-Nazis marching in support of his presidency in Charlottesville last weekend, and was responsible for the near-fatal cognitive dissonance the president visibly struggled with when he did so.

Why is Bannon out?

The Trump White House has been riven with divisions and factional warfare from the very beginning. In particular, Bannon, whose ex-wife once claimed that he said that he didn't want his children “going to school with Jews” (he denies this), butted heads with Trump's Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his faction of Wall Street-friendly pinstripe-drones and sundry moderate Republican clingers.

Bannon was the figurehead and leader of the nationalist, alt-right faction surrounding the president, while Kushner was the figurehead for the Wall Street moderates in his administration. In the early days of the administration Bannon seemed set for victory over the Kushnerites – he had installed himself on the National Security Council and had the president's ear. Trump's early moves – the travel-ban, leaving NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – all had Bannon's fingerprints all over them.

Early on in the administration Bannon also clashed with Trump's first chief of staff, former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. A lifelong adenoidal Republican functionary, the result of a secret government experiment to breed a human being entirely without a spine, Priebus reportedly made peace with Bannon despite constant schoolyard bullying from most of the president's team, and the two formed an unlikely alliance within the White House.

But the president is nothing if not mercurial in his affections, and he appeared to sour on both Priebus and Bannon in later months, especially after Bannon was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Great Manipulator”, which is said to have irritated the thin-skinned president.

In July, in a chaotic shake-up of his White House staff, Trump replaced Priebus with a retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, and tasked him with bringing a semblance of militaristic order to his administration. Once Priebus was gone, Bannon became the target of Kelly's next purge, especially as events in Charlottesville played out.

What does this mean for Trump's agenda?

In the first instance, Trump and his supporters will hope that some of the hailstorm of criticism he's been receiving following his apparent endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago will abate following Bannon's exit.

The bat-shit crazy impromptu press conference the president gave on Tuesday was illuminating in that it showed the faultines in Trump's advice, between advisers telling him to condemn the Nazis and others pushing the Bannonite view that the “alt-left” were equally at fault and that there was “blame on both sides”.

This is the way Trump operates. Again and again, he floats half-baked ideas to see what will stick. After Charlottesville, he tried things Bannon's way – the Breitbart chief has long courted the nationalist right – but, unluckily for Bannon, the narcissistic president found that the ratings and reviews for that approach were poor.

As far as Trump's agenda is concerned, it seems unlikely that Bannon's departure will change the president's behaviour much at this point. The damage is, in a way, done; the course Bannon helped Trump chart is now set, and whether or not Bannon has his hand directly on the tiller, his ideological influence will still be felt in everything Trump does, because more than anyone else Trump was a Steve Bannon creation.

What about the balance of power in the White House?

Now that is likely to change dramatically without Bannon.

With a few exceptions – like Miller – the most influential advisers remaining in the clown-car White House are globalists and militarists. According to a Buzzfeed report, Bannon leaves behind an executive dominated by “hawks and internationalists” like Kushner, economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Bannon was a “voice for restraint” against the military adventurism such as missile-strikes against Syria and increased troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to the report.

Have we seen the last of Bannon?

Unfortunately not. On Friday, Bannon told Joshua Green, the author of Devil's Bargain, a book about Bannon's rise to power: “I'm leaving the White House and I'm going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”

What that means is a return to Breitbart, which is likely to become the administration's media mouthpiece even more than before. Bannon will take up the position of Executive Chairman of the publication. “Breitbart's pace of global expansion will only accelerate with Steve back,” Breitbart CEO Larry Solov said in a statement. “The sky's the limit.”

One Breitbart staffer simply tweeted: “WAR”.

However, there is already speculation that Bannon will return to Trump's side when – or if – the president begins in earnest to run for re-election in 2020.

And in the meantime, Bannon's exit has left the odious Stephen Miller, in many ways Bannon's ideological protege, as Trump's senior policy adviser.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.