OPINION: Over time the SANDF has become a rudderless ship and it remains critical for this entity to inspire confidence in its citizens by ensuring they are safe from both foreign and domestic threats, writes Zane Cleophas.
I guess I am supposed to start off with a clever remark, comment or quote. This, however, wouldn’t remove the stark reality of the sad and rapidly declining state of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the supporting Defence Industry (DI) – apologies in advance for not adhering to CSW (Convention of Service Writing) in writing this contribution.
Without going too far back in history, I’d like to mark time on the last decade, or so, and reflect on the SANDF and DI and some of the recent developments in the sector.
A few matters worth noting include the ageing SANDF both from a human resource and technology perspective and a declining defence budget’, coupled with political hurdles.
Allegations of corruption, tender fraud, ongoing defence acquisition, litigation, theft and plenty more shenanigans make it impossible even for the Kardashians to keep up on what transpires in the defence force.
The SANDF has over time become a rudderless ship operating in Sea State 8 conditions (very stormy weather) and being inadequately equipped with the required life safety equipment and training for such adverse conditions.
The SA Air Force (SAAF), on the other hand, has seen more aircraft grounded than flying in training and operational circumstances. This has meant that on a shoestring operational budget, the SAAF is still required to deliver on its mandate of training pilots, navigators, engineers, technical and support staff with bases being required to maintain their assets, infrastructure and remain operationally ready, based on the same budget principles.
Civilian-support contracts for aircraft were also cancelled, resulting in the loss of critical skills. Younger aircrew left for greener pastures to venture in either commercial airlines, work for aeronautics companies or, in some cases, join other defence forces.
The SA Army, similar to the SAAF, suffered the same fate.
With an ageing equipment inventory, it still faces an ageing human resource component, resulting in maintenance difficulties.
As the saying goes: “You can’t train an old dog new tricks.”
As for the SA Navy, it has fortunately found itself in a slightly better position.
This component is still able to maintain its course despite facing similar budget challenges. However, critical projects are still not executed.
Meanwhile, the SA Military Health Services has seen a rapid decline in its infrastructure and services while being expected to service Members of Parliament and foreign dignitaries when they visit SA.
It would be interesting to know which MPs utilise our military health facilities.
I suspect at this point that the decline of the support functions (divisions) will take up the balance of space afforded for this opinion piece, so let us fast forward to recent events.
For instance, who would’ve thought at the start of 2020 we’d find ourselves in what appears to be an apocalyptic movie with law enforcement supported by the SANDF handling the widespread looting that took place last month right up to keeping civilians off the streets and at home to curb a further spread of Covid-19 infections.
The deployment of the SANDF to assist amid the Coronavirus pandemic has left many South Africans both home and abroad with a few questions such as: “Is the SANDF able to execute its mandate and ensure the sovereignty of state (RSA) and still fulfil its international obligations both as a member of the African Union and SADC?”
Secondly, does the SANDF inspire the necessary confidence in its citizens by ensuring they are safe from both foreign and domestic threats?
Can the SANDF be compared to other global defence forces and in fact, does the SANDF want to be compared to other defence forces?
For the first time in a very long time, citizens are talking about intelligence services, their role and function and yes, what it costs the taxpayer to run such services and more precisely, what the newly appointed Chief of Defence Intelligence, Lieutenant-General Thalita Mxakato, brings.
The SAAF is more often than not only looked to for assistance if there are bush/veld fires or rescue missions to be conducted.
The same applies to the SA Navy, when there are vessels in distress, and so on.
Despite the bad press, the role and functions of a “healthy” SANDF remain critical.
All the aforementioned, in the execution of its mandate and instilling confidence in all citizens and, by default possible investors, is only possible when we have a safe, secure and stable country.
Recent events of riots, looting and civil unrest put the spotlight squarely on the SANDF and its capabilities and it is clear that as much as the army was successful in restoring calm, which most South Africans were and are grateful for, it was also evident that the SANDF requires a major “shake up”.
This requires clear political will.
In supporting the SANDF, parliamentary oversight is needed to ensure accountability with a clearly defined strategy that speaks to the current threat (ranging from civil unrest to the ever-increasing cyber threat or rather cyberwar).
This can also be done by ensuring that citizens remain engaged through school programmes, parliament and through roadshows that will achieve instilling confidence and possibly creating a force multiplier.
Governments’ urgent re-commitment to the entire Defence Industry, from research and development right up to technology commercialisation for non-defence purposes, is critical.
This includes, but is not limited to, reaffirming Denel as a Strategic National Security Asset as well as streamlining the entire SANDF through resource consolidation, asset sweating, credible partnerships and staying relevant through keeping up with global threats and trends.
In essence, the SANDF can indeed be restored to its former “glory” providing that the glaring inadequacies are dealt with.
Changes to the Defence Force leadership, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, I believe, are the first step in the right direction.
Little is known about Lieutenant-General Mxakato as she’s not been a career intelligence officer and with the spotlight on intelligence, specifically defence intelligence, she has her work cut out.
However, she is flanked by very competent deputies and therefore the spotlight should be used as the much needed “marketing tool” for the entire intelligence services and not just defence intelligence.
* Cleophas is the CEO of Security and Defence Technology Consulting and a former member of the SANDF.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.