South Africa's defence policy in need of a resupply

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South Africa's defence policy in need of a resupply

John Stupart

08 Jul 2019

5min min read
  • Budget
  • Military readiness

hen Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni announced South Africa’s budget for 2019, the Department of Defence (DoD) was left with just over R50 billion, or roughly USD 3.6 billion. This was at best a zero net increase over the budget of preceding years, and in all practicality a deduction in total funding as a percentage of GDP. 

South Africa is in a technical recession with little hope of a swift recovery. In terms of spending priorities for the government, defence spending is possibly the lowest. And yet South Africa continues to muster its forces in numerous roles and functions, at the behest of the president, as though the budgetary doldrums will pass.

It won’t. And the time is past due for a radical change at the military’s core.

Champagne tastes, beer budget

The harsh reality is that the DoD’s leadership must make hard choices about what the military can and cannot do with less than one percent of GDP as its budget. Hidden within the folds of the South African Defence Review document - the gold standard policy document for long-term military planning - is an indicated budgetary requirement over ten years that hovers around 2 percent of GDP. 

However, neither the defence ministry nor the commanders themselves appear willing to acknowledge the reality that this spending level will never be provided in their lifetimes - barring an all-out state of war - thereby leaving the military in a catch 22. Indeed, its navy must patrol a massive coastline and exclusive economic zone, with responsibilities reaching the Antarctic. Its Air Force must protect South African skies, transport VVIPs, resupply troops deployed abroad, and aid in command and control with other services. And finally, the army must secure the borders, fight pernicious rebel organisations in the DRC, maintain a support capability internally, and prepare for large-scale mobilisation in the event of war. In addition, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is also required to maintain, in the words of Reserves Chief, Major General Andersen, “credible combat forces, rapid force generation, trained reserves, strong doctrine, quality training, technology and good morale”

Except, they all must do this with less than half the budget required.

Hard fights ahead

The outlook is not entirely hopeless. African Defence Review conducted a force comparison between the Finnish Defence Forces and the SANDF, given similar funding levels and policy reform paths. Finland has a fraction of South Africa’s population, yet makes do with a similar budget.

It illustrated that a small, highly competent professional military can be maintained at current budget levels, but at the cost of several key components long considered part of the SANDF furniture. For a country the size of South Africa, maximising the budget it has rather than the budget it wants is an unfortunate reality.


Source: African Defence Review

As illustrated above, the largest, most difficult decision required by the South African military leadership is to cut the force size, considerably. This need not emulate the Finnish model exactly, but when one considers that the vast majority of the South African defence budget is being consumed by salaries, force strength must be reduced. Naturally, any minister or general advocating the whittling down of their own forces is signing their own resignation letter, and yet, that precise decision is what is most needed within South Africa.

This unenviable policy crossroads is largely a legacy from the pre-1994 military handover. The old Defence Force was re-siloed into a stratified, rigid structure aimed at cost-cutting with none of the job losses or reconceptualisation of strategic need for the new South Africa. On the contrary, the new SANDF had to incorporate Umkhonto we Sizwe’s ranks as well.

In a nutshell, South Africa’s defence force has retained the bulk of the Cold War apartheid military despite a shift in strategic needs. Fast forward to 2019 and the SANDF, geared and equipped to fight Communist militaries from the previous century, have neither the funding to persist nor the momentum to change itself.

What can be done?

When President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new cabinet announcement was revealed in May 2019, Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula retained her post. Untainted by scandal from the Jacob Zuma regime, Mapisa-Nqakula has nonetheless exhibited little enthusiasm - at least publicly - for drastic reform of the SANDF. This was a missed opportunity by Ramaphosa to push urgent and necessary changes in a ministry that has already crossed the point of no return in terms of obsolescence. 

Three hard choices must be made. What South Africa wants to achieve with its military, how many troops this will be, and finally what capabilities must be sacrificed to achieve this.

First, the South African Defence Review laid out a vast array of strategic goals and responsibilities of the defence force. Put bluntly the country cannot afford to do everything. This means that the review, now passed into legislation, must be revised in scope to reflect a sober, minimised strategic outlook.

Secondly, cease contract renewals across all rank levels to gradually reduce overall force size to a more manageable level. At almost 60,000 soldiers, the SANDF is simply too large for the budget it has. A force of less than half, as exemplified in the Finnish example, complemented by a restructured reserve and national guard system would certainly go a long way in reducing the bulk. This is, of course, a very politically-unpalatable course of action. In a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, releasing almost 30,000 full-time employees from service, even if done gradually, would spell disaster for the department’s political futures and raise the anger of the defence force union (SANDU). 

Cutting force size need not be performed as rapidly as possible. Indeed, if the payroll within the SANDF can be reduced to even 50 percent of current budgetary levels over a period of five to ten years, the additional funds made available could be funnelled into training and equipping the force that would remain. Defence acquisitions of new weapons and equipment is a notoriously long process that takes years, if not decades, to materialise. If the department of defence began planning for a leaner professional force for 2030 this entire process could be managed without drastic job cuts in the short term.

Finally, the military would need to shelve legacy formations and capabilities that simply are not needed. At least, not at current budget levels. Armour, for example, has not utilised a single main battle tank in armed conflict since the Angolan war. These tanks, while significant force multipliers for landward defence, have little to no use abroad in South Africa’s peacekeeping missions, nor internally or on the border. In a word: they must go. 

Difficult choices

During the 2019 Mozambican floods, media reports questioned why South Africa only committed a handful of resources to aid in relief efforts. South Africa cannot underfund the defence force and then complain when only a single helicopter is sent across the border. Yet, if defence priorities are aligned with a leaner, more realistic strategic requirements by the state, a smaller, professional force could achieve a lot with a little, as opposed to trying to accomplish everything on a shoestring budget.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.