Maverick Citizen


With SA democracy under threat, bridging the knowledge gap in civil-military relations is critical

Soldiers search the boot of a car in Phoenix, Durban. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Armed forces — the SANDF included — require rigorous oversight, not only to ensure that they are properly resourced for defence against foreign and internal aggressors but also to ensure that they don’t turn their arms and specialist training against the state and its people.


Craig Bailie is a Konrad Adenauer Foundation scholar currently placed with its Parliamentary Research Programme. He has 10 years of experience as a defence civilian teaching civil-military relations to officers of the SANDF. The views expressed are his own. 

James Madison, founding father and fourth president of the United States of America, said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The insurrection that recently took hold of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, leading to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) deployment, lends fresh credibility to Madison’s well-known dictum.     

From an international relations perspective, armed forces are necessary because, as Madison was well aware, humans are not angels, nor do angels govern them. Historically, militaries have been responsible for guarding their host states against foreign governments’ threatening ambitions and activities. The trouble is that the armed forces, like the members of any government, are human and are themselves capable of deception and error.

Therefore, from a civil-military relations point of view, armed forces require oversight, not only to ensure that they are properly resourced for defence against foreign and, increasingly, internal aggressors or invisible enemies, but also to ensure that they don’t turn their arms and specialist training against the state and its people. States, including the democratic kind, are therefore dependent on their militaries in two fundamental ways: defence against external threats and that militaries refrain from being a threat from within. 

The fact of fallible human beings, necessarily sanctioned and collectively armed with the greatest life-threatening force a state can muster, drives the question posed by the second-century Roman poet Juvenal: “Who will guard the guardians?” The same question reads as follows in the contemporary South African context: Who is responsible for overseeing the activities of the SANDF and the wider Department of Defence to ensure that they serve democratic ends?  

In a democracy, the responsibility of exercising oversight of the military, although ultimately collective in nature, is divided between different civilian actors. This fulfils the requirement of civilian control — one prerequisite for democratic civil-military relations. In South Africa, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He appoints a minister of defence (currently Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula). This figure, together with his/her immediate subordinate, the secretary for defence (currently Gladys Kudjoe), are at the proverbial coalface of the country’s civil-military relations — this is unless our soldiers are internally deployed. 

In broad terms, the responsibility of oversight rests with “the people” in the form of their elected representatives in Parliament, civil society actors and the individual voter. Parliament (including its defence committees) is responsible for holding the president and the minister of defence accountable. Furthermore, it is responsible for authorising defence policy, formulating defence legislation and approving the defence budget.

It has the power to “endorse, alter or cancel the president’s decision to deploy the SANDF”. South Africa’s civil society actors, including academics and the media, can bring to light and publicise important information that can guide or put pressure on government or the SANDF towards making defence-related decisions in one direction or another.

If citizens feel strongly enough about defence and security matters (not currently the case in South Africa), this may influence the way they vote. A newly elected government could initiate needed reforms in the defence sector, including a change of leadership. These are among the internal and external controls that Madison spoke of and advocated.

Even if oversight of South Africa’s defence force was always exercised with due diligence and the necessary political will, which it hasn’t always been (see here and here), its effectiveness remains contingent upon two things. Firstly, the military professionalism of the SANDF and, secondly, sufficiently widespread knowledge of and interest in South Africa’s defence and civil-military affairs. Both conditions depend on instruction in civil-military relations. 

The SANDF’s recognition of the authority vested in South Africa’s democratically elected government is an essential feature of its military professionalism. No matter how competent those charged with the management and oversight of the defence force may be, democratic control of the armed forces is impossible without the armed forces willingly submitting to it, as is required by South Africa’s Constitution.   

Of concern in present-day South Africa is the absence of sufficiently widespread knowledge and interest in the country’s defence and civil-military affairs. Without this, the type of oversight necessary for the democratic control of South Africa’s armed forces and healthy civil-military relations becomes challenged. This, in turn, has implications for South Africa’s democracy and national security.

Citizens in dispute with members of the SANDF after blocking off roads in Cornubia, Durban. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Among those who ought to be well equipped with knowledge and understanding of South Africa’s defence and civil-military matters are the 20 South Africans currently sitting on Parliament’s defence committees: the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD). However, a cursory glance at the committee members’ respective online profiles leaves one wondering whether any have qualifications or experience in the area of defence and security.

One member cites experience with Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), and another carries the designation of “General”. Former Chair of the PCDMV and the current Speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly, Thandi Modise, wrote in 2004, “There is nothing as dangerous to democracy as an ignorant MP; let us keep on learning.”  

With a wider purview in mind, research findings of South Africa’s foremost military sociologist, Professor Lindy Heinecken, identified a knowledge gap in South Africa’s civil-military relations. A knowledge gap involves “a lack of understanding between the military and parent society, which affects informed decision-making on military matters, interest in and support for the armed forces”. 

Her study revealed a belief among South Africa’s military officers that “politicians are very or somewhat ignorant of military affairs”. Among the civilian university students surveyed in the same study, there was “a general lack of interest in security issues”, “a high level of apathy towards the military” and a negative view of the military profession in South Africa.

Interestingly, and somewhat paradoxically, research conducted by the World Values Survey between 1996 and 2013 showed an increase among South Africans in openness to military rule as a form of governance. In 2013, 16.9% of survey respondents believed “army rule” would be a “very good” way of governing the country — 29.7% believed “army rule” would be a “fairly good” way of governing the country. This is alarming not only because military rule, by definition, cannot be democratic, but also because the military has an abysmal governance record in Africa.   

Fundamental to cultivating a greater sense of awareness, interest in and appreciation for South Africa’s defence and security affairs, including the armed forces and their position relative to the rest of society, is the teaching of civil-military relations. Civil-military relations is an academic subject located in the broader sphere of political science, concerned with the relations between a country’s military, government and wider society. At its core, civil-military relations, as taught in a democracy, educates both soldiers and civilians on how to relate to one another. This relationship touches on, among other issues, the role and responsibilities of the armed forces, military professionalism, parliamentary oversight or political control, and security sector reform.

In 2018, I reported on the absence of civil-military relations from the curriculum of South Africa’s universities. The South African Military Academy, which houses the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Military Science, was and remains an exception. However, the academy’s students are all soldiers. Furthermore, the rigorous teaching of civil-military relations at the academy is limited to two sparsely populated academic programmes — one at undergraduate level and the other at postgraduate level. The latter is presented to high-ranking officers engaged with defence and security studies at the South African National Defence College. The civil-military relations presented beyond these two programmes, both at the academy and elsewhere in the SANDF, is superficial.

In other words, not all students of the South African Military Academy are exposed to a substantive education on civil-military relations. The same goes for SANDF soldiers more widely.

For officers of the SANDF to be exposed for the first time to comprehensive teaching on democratic civil-military relations when they are already high-ranking officials of the defence force is, in many instances, a case of too little too late. To cultivate the necessary respect for democracy and democratic civil-military relations, these soldiers must be introduced to democratic principles from as early as basic military training.

South Africans need to understand the roles and responsibilities of the armed forces and their responsibilities towards the armed forces, as much as they need to understand their own rights.

The fact that some of South Africa’s highest-ranking military officers lack this respect is a testament to the country’s perverted political history. Because of apartheid, these officers were never afforded the opportunity of military training in a democratic dispensation. 

An encouraging development at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is the introduction of a new third-year course in its Department of Politics and International Relations: Militarisation of African Politics. UJ’s new course aims to provide students with the necessary theoretical and conceptual foundations to engage in civil-military relations discourses, both within the African context and beyond. The course gives particular attention to how and why military coups occur and what can be done to prevent them.  

Graduates from courses such as this one are necessary if South Africa hopes to have a future cohort of academics, journalists, parliamentarians or even military officers who are equipped with the knowledge and understanding necessary to steer South Africa’s civil-military relations in a democratic direction.   

Professor of Strategic Studies at Stellenbosch University Abel Esterhuyse has noted how “very little information is currently available in open sources on the readiness of the contemporary South African military”. For him, this is “a reflection of the extent to which the military has been insulated from society in general and… the academic fraternity in particular”. For at least two reasons, South Africans should be concerned over the extent to which the civil-military knowledge gap that Professor Heinecken highlighted in 2005 persists today.

Firstly, it will continue to have negative implications for SANDF preparedness and morale, both in the face of external and internal security threats. The ongoing insurgency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, and the recent unrest in South Africa are two examples. The public (represented by its elected parliamentarians) cannot appropriately support and fund what it doesn’t properly understand.

In addition to the need for parliamentarians to be at the top of their game, this support involves the willingness of citizens to serve the country’s security needs as members of the defence force. For reasons I have already explained, it is crucial that the military draw into its ranks men and women of integrity and character. This becomes difficult if citizens of moral fortitude perceive the military as being less than ethical and, consequently, decide to apply themselves and their talents in environments more closely aligned with their principles and values.    

Secondly, South Africa’s post-1994 government has grown in its willingness to deploy the SANDF internally. Covid-19 and South Africa’s recent civil unrest have encouraged this trend. Furthermore, domestic military operations such as the Vaal River clean-up, Project Koba-Tlala and Operation Corona suggest growing military involvement in South Africa’s domestic affairs.

Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies has recently argued that South Africa’s security sector is in crisis and that reform must start now. Devoting resources to education on South Africa’s defence and civil-military affairs will prove integral to this process. Civil-military relations is a key subject.

These developments are partly a response to growing and long-standing concerns over the internal security threats confronting South Africa, rooted in high unemployment, poverty and inequality, as well as ethnic and racial tensions. Each of these realities played a role in South Africa’s recent insurrection. The latest development making further demands on the SANDF is the taxi violence in the Western Cape. 

In short, we are seeing more and more direct contact between civilians and soldiers. Where actors on either side are ill-prepared for this kind of interaction, misperceptions and behaviours reflecting a knowledge gap become more evident.

For example, with reference to SA Army Goal 5, “to actively contribute to socioeconomic development and upliftment in SA”, I once had a high-ranking officer in the SANDF’s Infantry Formation write, “We, as the Infantry Formation, are missing our Christian duty to assist the poor, regardless of the colour of their skin, as our initiatives benefit only one race group.”

Whether the SANDF should be directly contributing towards South Africa’s socioeconomic development is open for debate. There shouldn’t be any doubt, however, about whether the military of a secular state has a “Christian duty”. The officer’s statement reflected a conflation, in her mind, of church and state — one that we as South Africans should be concerned about.   

During a briefing of Parliament’s JSCD in April 2020, SANDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam, made clearly undemocratic comments before his political authorities: “You’re not our clients. We are not the police. We take instructions from the commander-in-chief.” 

In an SANDF statement issued in September 2020, then SANDF Chief, General Solly Shoke, disclosed that the SANDF was aware of a political meeting to which senior members of the military had been invited, “to discuss undisclosed issues affecting the ANC”. Shoke warned SANDF members against involvement in politics.

In a telephone interview held two days later and broadcast on SABC, the convener of the meeting and former Chief of South Africa’s Defence Intelligence, Lieutenant-General (Ret) Maomela Motau, expressed his belief that it was within the right of currently serving members of the SANDF to attend the political meeting in question. Motau was mistaken in his belief and dangerously undemocratic in his thinking. The involvement of soldiers in domestic politics is contrary to the prescripts of democratic civil-military relations. 

As he disembarked from a helicopter following the recent civil unrest in Gauteng’s Alexandria township, the SANDF’s newly appointed Chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya, had the following to say to those still trying to destabilise South Africa: “I always tell people that, when we come in, if they don’t toe the line, all hell will break loose.”   

Without an appropriate understanding of the norms and institutions governing democratic civil-military relations, it becomes difficult for those in the military, Parliament, civil society and the wider public to assess the appropriateness of statements like these and respond accordingly.

As much as law enforcement remains a necessity, General Maphwanya should know, for example, that certain conditions must be in place before the SANDF can exercise lethal force against civilians. This is presumably what he meant when he said, “all hell will break loose”. The code of conduct currently governing the latest iteration of Operation Prosper, whereby the SANDF is giving support to the South African Police Service, precludes soldiers from using lethal force.

Sometimes the consequences of a knowledge gap can be fatal. The death of Collins Khosa at the hands of SANDF soldiers during South Africa’s national lockdown testifies to this. This is why, in a radio interview about South Africa’s recent civil unrest, Bantu Holomisa, president of the United Democratic Movement, described the SANDF deployment as “very risky”, saying, “I hope they will send a disciplined unit.”  

Knowledge and understanding of democratic civil-military relations and the roles and responsibilities of the SANDF among South African civilians and soldiers alike will have multiple benefits for South Africa’s democratic consolidation and national security. Knowledge and understanding of this kind will improve government decision-making on defence-related matters, including defence funding and SANDF deployments; encourage appropriate behaviour between civilians and soldiers, particularly while the latter are deployed; and guide public responses to SANDF deployments and soldier behaviour while on deployment.

South Africans need to understand the roles and responsibilities of the armed forces and their responsibilities towards the armed forces, as much as they need to understand their own rights.

Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies has recently argued that South Africa’s security sector is in crisis and that reform must start now. Devoting resources to education on South Africa’s defence and civil-military affairs will prove integral to this process. Civil-military relations is a key subject.

In the meantime, South Africans should hope and pray for two things. Firstly, that South Africa’s political and military leaders will make the decisions necessary to get the country’s much-needed security sector reform under way and, secondly, that the country’s existing “political, social, and economic pathologies” will allow them the opportunity to do so. DM

The author thanks Sven Botha and Dr Bhaso Ndzendze of the UJ Department of Politics and International Relations for providing course information.  


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