Under apartheid, the South African security sector—its armed forces and internal police agencies—were instrumental to the racist government’s policy of suppression.
Decades later, the security services are still feeling the repercussions of their role in segregation.
Until the early 1990s, the police and the army actively undermined black resistance movements at home and abroad. During white rule, South Africa waged war in Namibia and Angola and supported the Ian Smith regime in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia.
So it’s no wonder that, when apartheid ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela’s racially-integrated African National Congress came to power, public opinion was divided when it came to the security services.
That ambivalence, and a policy shift in favor of economic development, resulted in a period of neglect for the military—from which it has yet to fully recover.
This year, the South African government published its first major defense review since 1998. According to the document, the South African National Defense Force is “in a critical state of decline” characterized by “force imbalance between capabilities, block obsolescence and unaffordability of many of its main operating systems.”
Without immediate remedies, this decline will “severely compromise” South Africa’s military capabilities, the review warns.
Ambition and reality
The main issue is money. There’s not enough of it—and what cash the armed forces do possesses, they usually mismanage. South Africa spends less than 1.2 percent of its GDP on the military, putting it in the same class as New Zealand and Sweden, two countries with fewer nearby threats.
This level of spending might still be acceptable, if South Africa had no military ambitions beyond directly defending its own territory, explains Helmoed Heitman, a South African military expert, who helped write the 2014 review.
Territorial self-defense may have been the military’s original mandate in the ANC era, but that’s no longer realistic, Heitman says.
At present, South Africa maintains substantial military contingents in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur—both as part of African peacekeeping forces.
The SANDF also participates in anti-piracy operations off the Mozambican coast.
South Africa is “already involved as a regional player and our defense force plays a huge role in that,” explains John Stupart, editor of the online African Defense Review.
South Africa has assumed leadership of all of southern Africa—if not the whole continent. As Africa’s largest democracy, it’s vying for a permanent seat on the U.N. security council and is equally invested in the African Union.
“We may want all this [political aim],” Heitman points out, “but our neighbors say you are not performing peacekeeping-wise.”
“Of the 25 countries involved in peacekeeping operations in Africa, we are the ninth largest in terms of troop contributions,” Heitman explains. “But if you compare our troop commitment to the size of our economy, we are the 23rd out of 25.”
This mismatch has led the South African government to step up its commitment to peacekeeping forces, but it has also strained the SANDF.
Sutpart and Heitman agree that the mismatch between ambitions and resources is the result of the government never defining a coherent foreign policy. “It was up to the Defense Review Committee to define what the Defense Department and the South African state’s foreign policy is,” Stupart says.
“Within the government, there is no real concept of what national interests are,” Heitman says.
“There is an ever-widening gap between the missions given to the defense force and the funding available,” Heitman adds. This proved tragic when, in March 2013, rebels attacked a contingent of South African soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic—an incident that became known as the Battle of Bangui.
Rebels almost completely overran the South African positions. The SANDF relied on commercial airlift services to provide ammunition and reinforcements in Central African Republic, and these contractors were not able to provide the necessary capacity on short notice.
What way out?
The Defense Review recommends increasing military spending to two or three percent of GDP and reforming both procurement and strategy.
By pushing the military to its breaking point, the South African government has made radical change—or complete disaster—inevitable, Stupart argues. “If this [budget increase] doesn’t occur in the next five years, there is no plan B. We can not maintain our defense force at our current defense budget level.”
“Within 10 years,” he adds, “we will reach the point of no return, where we are no longer able to pursue any coherent defense policy.”
Heitman is cautiously optimistic that reform can succeed. He says the political and military establishments appreciate the need to act. And while money is always short, Heitman says he thinks that even a small increase in the budget will go a long way.
“We couldn’t go from 1.1 to two percent overnight, anyway—there is no way we could spend the money,” he explains. “But given a little bit more money and with a firm leadership by the commander in chief and the cabinet, we could stop the decline almost overnight.”
“If we focus, we can be doing what we are doing now—properly.”
Of course, in politics nothing is certain. Elections are coming up in South Africa, and that could impact military reform. Beset by scandal, the governing ANC is the most vulnerable it has been since 1994.
Ideally, the current Defense Review would be only the “starting point,” Heitman says, with additional reviews following every five years—and substantial political action taking place between the planning exercises.
“If the government gets a really big fight in the elections,” Heitman warns, “then we are dead, because then it will spend the next five years throwing money at Mickey Mouse social projects to buy votes—and they won’t spend attention on the military.”
Many argue that South Africa will need to justify increased military expenditure with increased transparency and improved anti-corruption measures. South Africa has squandered billions of dollars in corrupt weapons deals in recent decades.
Some procurement deals, like high-tech Gripen jet fighters, are possibly overkill in light of the SANDF’s needs. The Defense Review calls for increased transparency and radical changes in procurement policy.