The SANDF’s ingrained culture of secrecy and non-communication is counter-productive and anti-democratic
Communication is a core component of trust that is essential to establishing and maintaining the SA National Defence Force’s organisational effectiveness and South Africa’s democratic civil-military relations. The deployment of SANDF troops to the Central African Republic in 2013 and the recent rioting and looting attest that absent or poor leadership communication can be fatal.
Craig Bailie is a Konrad Adenauer Foundation scholar placed with its Parliamentary Research Programme. He gained valuable insight into the organisational leadership and culture of the SANDF while teaching at the South African Military Academy over a 10-year period. The views expressed are his own.
Except for the security sector reform necessitated by South Africa’s transition to democracy, the demands on South Africa’s post-1994 military leadership may have never been greater than after the commencement of the country’s national lockdown in late March 2020. President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to the internal deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) — a measure aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 — as the “most important mission in the history of our country”.
By late April, 76,000 SANDF soldiers were authorised for deployment on to South Africa’s streets. Ultimately, no more than 8,000 were actually deployed. At the time, this was the greatest number of soldiers deployed internally since the advent of South Africa’s democracy.
These soldiers assisted with containing the spread of Covid-19, manning roadblocks, delivering essential services and border patrol. The SANDF was ill prepared for these tasks, commonly known among military scholars and practitioners as “military operations other than war” (MOOTW).
Furthermore, officers commanding South Africa’s military units were responsible for implementing new measures and protocols to keep the SANDF, its institutions and members as free from Covid-19 as possible. In some instances, the execution of these measures, or the lack thereof, limited access to human resources, placed additional strain on leader-follower relations and tested institutional culture.
More recently, with South Africa at adjusted Level 3 lockdown, President Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of 25,000 soldiers to help quell the rioting and looting that gripped KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng following the detention of South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma. This latest deployment has once again tested officers’ and troops’ ability to exercise a security role among fellow citizens in a democratic manner. News of SANDF soldiers patrolling the SABC building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, brings this testing into stark reality.
Combined, these pressures and demands have given greater impetus to the need for effective leadership communication within and by the SANDF. As many South Africans would have learnt during Covid-19 and the recent riots and looting, communication is crucial during crises. Leadership and management experts, Holtom, Edmondson and Niu, write, “every leader knows that communication during a crisis is critical”. Whether every leader possesses this insight is debatable.
The connection between leadership and communication
Communication experts Johnson and Hackman define leadership as “human… communication that modifies the attitudes and behaviours of others in order to meet shared group goals and needs”. For them, “extraordinary leadership is, first and foremost, a product of extraordinary communication”.
During a recent parliamentary vote on the Department of Government Communications and Information Systems, African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) deputy president Wayne Thring noted the power inherent in communication and media to “inform as well as influence and shape opinions on a variety of subjects”. He defined the mandate of the department as follows: “to foster transparency and… provide the public with information that is timely, accurate and accessible” and “to ensure democratic strength through rapid communication of government’s achievements”.
If what South Africans want is a democracy, these same expectations should apply to every other government department, including the Department of Defence (DoD), of which the SANDF is the major component.
Communication is a core component of trust that is essential to establishing and maintaining the SANDF’s organisational effectiveness and South Africa’s democratic civil-military relations. The deployment of SANDF troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013 and the recent rioting and looting in South Africa attest that absent or poor leadership communication can be fatal.
Communication challenges facing the SANDF
Earlier this year, African defence and security news publication defenceWeb asked whether SANDF communicators are “losing the plot”. The piece noted poor communication between the SANDF and external stakeholders as well as within the organisation.
Examples of communication challenges cited in the article included the inoperability of DoD and SANDF websites and mixed or contradictory messages communicated by military leaders. During Covid-19, contradictory messages have also characterised communication between the SANDF and South Africa’s then Minister of Defence (MoD), the same MoD and the Presidency and between members of South Africa’s wider security sector.
Inoperable websites and mixed messages may be part of a deeper historical problem with SANDF communication. In his foreword to a book on South Africa’s post-apartheid military, the founder and former executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, Jakkie Cilliers, writes, “a culture of neglect and secrecy pervades the SANDF”.
Could it be that neglectful leadership drives the need for secrecy, which, in turn, makes for a culture of impunity? Not long after commencing basic military training at the Oudtshoorn Infantry School in 2010, I was among the MSDS recruits ordered to hand instructors our cellphones. Prior to this instruction, I had the opportunity to take photos of the shower cubicles in the bungalow my fellow recruits and I happened to be occupying. These were unfit for animals. If there was no other evidence of neglectful leadership in the SANDF at the time, the state of the showers would have been a sign of things to come.
In January this year, staff members and students of the South African Military Academy were instructed to sign a declaration form prohibiting them from “divulging any information related to the Covid-19 situation of any unit under command of the Trg Comd to any stakeholder or role player without the permission of the Cmdt Mil Acad” [sic]. Due to my personal experience of human resource management at the Military Academy prior to and during the pandemic, I didn’t believe signing the declaration form was in my best interests or in the best interests of the institution as a whole.
The reasons for the kind of culture that Jakkie Cilliers alluded to, and that I have experienced first-hand, do not originate solely from within the SANDF. In 2000, for example, South Africa’s then MoD, Mosiuoa Lekota, centralised all military communication with the media. It would have been preferable to brief military commanders on communication imperatives and empower them with the responsibility of deciding what constitutes appropriate communication with the public. This also would have encouraged trust between South Africa’s military leadership and its civilian authorities.
Having read extensively on leadership communications, I have a few mutually reinforcing pointers on how SANDF leaders at all levels of the organisation can improve their communication. Implementing these suggestions will enhance the SANDF’s organisational culture, develop cohesion within and among the SANDF’s units and arms of service and strengthen South Africa’s civil-military trust. Together, these improvements will benefit South Africa’s democracy and national security.
Communicate regularly, transparently, timeously and proactively
Knowledge is power and, in a democracy, power is something military leaders should want civilians to have. Regular communication within and across all military units and services and with the public will keep everyone abreast of developments affecting the SANDF, its members and, by implication, the entire nation. The DoD website must be operational at all times and updated regularly.
Commanders of units and services may want to write a weekly brief to their subordinates about developments affecting their spheres of operation. In times of crisis, such as Covid-19, or even as personnel face other work pressures, this may prove preferable to in-person communication periods.
Leaders must think about communication in multi-pronged rather than one-dimensional terms. As an additional communication measure, commanders could arrange for a video recording of themselves presenting their briefs. These could then be distributed via email or on a secure platform such as the DoD’s intranet. Leaders at the United States’ military academy West Point offer an instructive example of what they did during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Knowing precisely who is in charge and getting a sense of what they look like, think like and talk like, and knowing what’s going on more generally within and outside the organisation, has the potential for encouraging a sense of security and trust among members of the SANDF and the civilians they serve.
For regular communication to build trust, however, it must also be transparent and timeous. Military leaders must share relevant knowledge openly and honestly. In South Africa, or any other democracy, relevant knowledge is any information that supports the growth and consolidation of organisational cohesion and effectiveness, military professionalism and democratic governance.
Faculty, staff and students at the South African Military Academy learnt for the first time from a news story published in September 2020 that a serial rapist had allegedly been operating among them since more than a year earlier. Key leaders of the institution had known about the allegations all along, but never disclosed anything to faculty, staff and students. The source and timing of the information therefore encouraged questions about the credibility of the academy’s leadership.
Transparent leadership communication also involves leaders explaining their decisions to subordinates as much as circumstances allow. Irrespective of rank, subordinates remain adults. Having the attitude of “because I said so” doesn’t inspire a sense of transparency, agency and loyalty within an organisation. Furthermore, in a democracy, the military is expected to explain itself to the wider citizenry.
Communication must also be proactive. This is especially important for security actors who are charged with responding to threats and predicting and planning for them. Security leaders must be able to anticipate the future. For example, SANDF leaders communicated the rules of engagement governing the military deployment during South Africa’s national lockdown retroactively rather than proactively. By the time the rules were published, South Africa’s civil-military relations had already come under strain because some soldiers acted beyond the bounds of what is appropriate during internal deployment in a democracy.
Embrace knowledge before communicating information — know your stuff
The only thing worse than not communicating is communicating falsely or inaccurately. The latter may happen unintentionally due to a lack of knowledge and understanding or a poor word choice. Either way, the consequences could be just as grave as when communicating deceitfully.
I have cited examples here and here of leadership communication within the SANDF going against the democratic grain. During a communication period involving staff and students of the South African Military Academy in 2020, recently retired Chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke, made an important point when he said, “rumours thrive when there is no proper communication.”
During the question-and-answer session following his address, I shared with the chief my disappointment that staff and students of the academy learnt about allegations of a serial rapist at the institution from the media rather than from the institution’s leaders. I was shocked when he responded, “I’m not privy to the article in the M&G. When I read a newspaper, they spoil my day.”
Leaders are responsible for being aware of what is communicated within and about their organisation and why, irrespective of the source. They are responsible, furthermore, for taking the appropriate action in light of relevant communication.
In a 2016 publication, military sociologist Prof Lindy Heinecken noted the negative impact on knowledge production of an increasingly insular SANDF and the “marked decline in the teaching on military issues at civilian universities”. Military leaders must embrace and encourage knowledge generation and consumption relative to the internal operations of their organisation and its relations with the external environment. Doing so includes following the proposals noted in the previous section. It also involves, more broadly, showing support for research, writing and teaching within and on the SANDF and the sphere of defence and security. This will help counter the probability of damaging communication and/or non-communication, or help mitigate the effects of either of these.
The SANDF’s leaders need to know and understand their professional duties both in terms of their functions and how these functions relate to the present realities facing them, their organisation and South Africa as a whole — all in the context of democratic governance. This is why the South African Military Academy and other learning institutions within the SANDF exist in the first place. The motto of the SA Military Academy, translated from Latin to English, reads: “Arm yourself through knowledge.”
This is also why American political scientist Samuel Huntington said, “the skill of the officer is neither a craft… nor an art”, but “an extraordinarily complex intellectual skill requiring comprehensive study and training”. Huntington understood the important role that professional military education plays in creating the knowledge that is a prerequisite for effective leadership communication.
Importantly, no one person knows everything. Any leader who feels he or she has reached the pinnacle of knowledge is a danger to themselves and those they lead and serve. Leaders must embrace the ethos of lifelong learning and be open to learning from others, including subordinates, if they wish to be recognised as leaders who know what they are talking about when they communicate.
Communication often happens without words
Few things communicate more emphatically a lack of pride and enthusiasm for excellence, and the state of a military unit’s morale, than seeing a soldier at an entranceway leaning against a wall while puffing on a cigarette, or moving at a snail’s pace towards a security gate to allow access for visitors and fellow employees.
CEO and executive coach Naz Beheshti writes that “evolved leaders are not only aware of… other means of communication but also… use nonverbal tools mindfully and deliberately to reinforce their message”. These nonverbal means of communication include voice tone, facial expression, eye contact and posture. The more a leader aligns nonverbal communication with verbal communication, the more effective the communication will be.
Soldiers taking guard duty don’t necessarily need to be evolved leaders, but they do need to serve under evolved leadership that can inspire a vision of excellence. This is important if military leaders wish to communicate to their organisation’s members and the wider public that the SANDF is truly “an employer of choice”.
In his address to soldiers on the eve of their deployment during South Africa’s national lockdown, President Ramaphosa said “this is not a moment for skop and donder”. The commander-in-chief communicated to soldiers the need to take special care in their interactions with civilians who are not enemies in war. Then-SANDF Chief, General Shoke, reclining in his chair, was visibly amused by the statement.
I appreciate a good sense of humour as much as the next person, but I can’t help wondering what the chief’s laughter may have communicated to soldiers who were watching and who were subsequently deployed. Could it be that some may have dismissed the president’s plea as inconsequential? Is it possible that General Shoke’s laughter had something to do with those instances during the lockdown in which soldiers behaved contrary to how the president had asked them to behave?
The president happened to be wearing army fatigues while making his address. This is a good example of a leader reinforcing verbal communication with non-verbal communication, the latter being his dress.
President Ramaphosa’s communication of solidarity with and support for the SANDF soldiers as he sent them out on a mission was admirable. However, and irrespective of what then MoD Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said, his wearing of military uniform also had the adverse effect of blurring the crucial distinction in a democracy between the military and the elected civilians who exercise constitutional control of the armed forces.
A video recently trended of an SANDF soldier struggling to make her way on to a military truck. The video and the comments that followed on social media remind us not only of the broader challenges facing the SANDF, but also of the power that the body and its movement have for communicating meaning, and Huntington’s insistence that military professionalism depends on comprehensive studying and training, including training of the explicitly physical kind.
Communicating with empathy
It isn’t just what leaders communicate that matters, but also how they communicate it. Communicating with empathy is always good, but it becomes vital during a crisis. Notwithstanding the need for militaries to be cohesive, unidirectional organisations, soldiers and civilian employees of the SANDF want to know their leaders care about their wellbeing, challenges and contexts and that they will accommodate these where possible.
In February 2020, a diagnostic and interventional radiologist diagnosed my son, due to be born in April, with a serious medical condition. Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Africa, and being concerned over implications for my son’s health if I were to contract Covid-19 at work and take it home with me, I requested permission to lecture my students at the South African Military Academy virtually, from the relative safety of my office. Leadership denied my request and I was instructed to return to class.
I stuck to my guns and was subsequently threatened with disciplinary action and called before a board of inquiry. Only on one occasion throughout the entire ordeal that stretched out over the period of more than a year did an authority figure ask me how my son was doing. This happened in May 2021 in a meeting that started with me submitting my resignation letter. I was never informed about the results of the board of inquiry.
Be courageous when communicating
If a leader doesn’t know something, admitting so, calling on a colleague for assistance or committing to providing information promptly is preferable to blowing smoke. In a contemporary age where leaders are stubborn in their dishonesty for the sake of preserving appearances, communicating honestly about not knowing something is a courageous and admirable way of going about leadership communication. It also forges trust.
Furthermore, there is no shame in asking for help or making opportunities available for wider consultation on an issue under discussion. In today’s interdependent and complex world, this is a leadership necessity. No single leader can make the decisions required for organisational success in a world as complex as the one we live in today. Furthermore, this kind of leadership communication is desirable in a democratic dispensation.
Leaders mustn’t be afraid of communicating problems or bad news, whether down or up the chain of command. A problem shared is a problem halved. Leaders and followers cannot help fix what they don’t know is broken. Disclosing organisational challenges and problems opens up opportunities for affected stakeholders to take ownership and exercise their agency as they seek solutions. In a democracy, these stakeholders include citizens themselves.
Subordinates who are leaders in their own right must have the courage to say ”no” to what they view as obviously illegal or unethical orders. The ability to say “no” or exercise what Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower, calls “intelligent disobedience”, has become especially important amid technological advances and the growing regularity of internal military deployments in South Africa and other parts of the world. Both of these developments have raised new questions in military ethics, placing greater demands on both leaders and followers to distinguish appropriately between “right” and “wrong”.
Finally, courageous leaders invite or allow critical conversations that may shed light on their own deficiencies. They admit when mistakes have been made and make the necessary apologies and/or restitution. The deployment of SANDF soldiers to the CAR in 2013, the events of 2014 involving a high-ranking SANDF officer and known among SANDF personnel as “the Siege of Oudtshoorn”, and the silence about an alleged serial rapist at the South African Military Academy, are three examples of cases that raised questions about military leadership yet to be answered.
Ending his address to faculty and staff at the South African Military Academy in March this year, Major-General Xolani Mankayi left the audience uninspired when he said, “I’m not in the mood for being asked questions, unless there is something burning.” Leaders must know that critical conversations cannot happen without questions and without their genuine interest in getting to know the interests and concerns of their followers.
Leaders are always communicating, whether by default or by design. The latter is far preferable for all concerned. When leaders are intentional about communicating regularly, honestly, proactively and in an informed manner, while being cognisant of the impact that nonverbal communication forms can have, and with an awareness of the need for empathy and courage, they facilitate loyalty and trust within their organisations.
When South Africa’s military leaders adopt these leadership communication principles, they facilitate loyalty and trust among their subordinates and across South African society more broadly. DM
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