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29 July 2013updated 05 Oct 2023 8:16am

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.

By Martin Plaut

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.

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  • 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. 

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