THE SOLDIER’S NEW CLOTHES
Inside the SANDF plan to spend R55,000 per soldier on new uniforms
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is in financial trouble — with ageing hardware, weaponry and uniforms. But even though South African soldiers’ gear is overdue for an upgrade, eyebrows are sure to be raised at the proposed price tag: almost R55,000 per soldier for the new kit.
Appearing before Parliament on 7 June 2023, Major-General Sean Stratford gave MPs an update on a project which has been in planning for the past few years: the upgrade of South Africa’s military uniform.
But although the plan to procure fresh army uniforms is not news, the proposed price tag very much is.
Stratford told MPs that the projected “costing for full roll-out” would amount to almost R3.5-billion. His presentation specified that there are currently 55,173 soldiers to be clothed, including reserves, which means that the cost of the new uniforms per soldier works out to close to R55,000 per person.
The roll-out of the new uniforms is only projected for the fourth quarter of the 2025/2026 financial year.
The Department of Defence and the SANDF did not respond to Daily Maverick’s repeated requests for comment over a two-day period this week.
Old uniforms: Uncomfortable and unfriendly
In Stratford’s parliamentary presentation, he laid out some of the problems with the existing SANDF kit. Of particular concern are the current soldiers’ boots, which are presenting challenges, including poor waterproofing, “hardening of the leather when dried after getting wet”, and failed stitching, meaning that the heels easily detach from the soles.
Then there is also the problem that the “wearing of the boots for extended periods results in fatigue of the feet”.
Stratford acknowledged in his presentation that multiple items of the old uniform were still available for use, including 31,000 pairs of trousers and 34,669 short-sleeved shirts. These items were procured before 2012, however, and are “either too small or too big”.
In June 2021, when news of the planned uniform upgrade appears to have been first reported, one of the other issues attributed to the old uniform was that its fit was not “female-body-profile friendly”.
At the time, the Mail & Guardian reported that the military uniform improvement project was aimed at “restoring the dignity of the army to its rightful glory”.
The biggest reason for the wardrobe redo, however, seems to be that of civilian impersonators.
SANDF camouflage, Stratford’s presentation records, has been “exploited by the citizens of South Africa using it as a fashion cloth in their clothing designs, thus tarnishing the image of the SA Army”.
It adds that “the camouflage uniform has recently become a commodity amongst hunters and military collectors as it became available for sale on eBay, an online commercial platform”.
As a result, the CSIR was called in seemingly to help develop a new SANDF camouflage pattern, as well as to resolve the old uniform problems.
emperor’s soldiers’ new clothes
Stratford told Parliament that the new kit needed to be:
- Able to provide protection against battlefield threats;
- Able to stand the test of time;
- Able to maintain its shape without the need to be ironed;
- Of colour which does not fade;
- Able to withstand degradation when stored for many years;
- Made of material and dyes which are readily available;
- Repairable; and
It is possible that the proposed new uniform meets all of these criteria except the last one.
The DA spokesperson on defence, Kobus Marais, told Daily Maverick this week that the R55,000 price tag per soldier was a big concern, and one that he has raised.
“It obviously doesn’t make any sense to pay R55K, and I’ve challenged them. They admitted it seems high and they’ll come back on that,” Marais said.
African Defence Review’s Darren Olivier stresses, however, that the need for a new uniform is not imaginary.
“I do believe that a new textile and new boots were long overdue. The original Soldier 2000 kit was designed in the 1990s and has not been optimal in the conditions in which SANDF troops operate, particularly the harsh conditions in the DRC and Mozambique.
“There are issues with weight and movement restriction after getting waterlogged, too much time to dry compared with newer textiles, and fading and other premature wearing out of items,” Olivier told Daily Maverick.
Olivier points out that one soldier has multiple items of clothing making up one uniform: 1x bush jacket, 2x long-sleeved shirts, 2x short-sleeve shirts, 2x long pants, 1x cap, and 1x bush hat. This is together with a cold-weather coat and rain suit — though these are issued “sparingly”, Olivier says — and two pairs of boots.
“However, the quoted total cost is still surprisingly high, and given how much this will cost and how much uncertainty remains, it definitely deserves closer scrutiny. At the very least, I would hope that Parliament’s Defence Committee requests a full breakdown,” Olivier said.
How much do soldiers’ uniforms cost elsewhere?
It is difficult to directly compare the costs of clothing soldiers internationally, and Olivier notes that very big armies — like that of the US — are able to benefit from “huge economies of scale when procuring items”.
But from the available information, it still appears that a price tag of R55,000 per soldier is extraordinarily high.
The US Government Accountability Office reported in 2021 that the cost of US Army uniforms was between $1,600 and $2,400: between R29,600 and R45,000 at today’s rand/dollar exchange rate.
In 2014, the British Ministry of Defence replied to a request for information on uniform procurement by stating that it had spent £15-million on 1.2 million combat garments — which works out to an astonishing £12.50 (about R295) per garment. It is, however, unclear how many garments each soldier would require. That figure also did not take into account the cost of boots, which were priced separately at roughly £25 each (almost R600).
Olivier says it is certainly possible to procure much cheaper camouflage uniforms.
“If you’re willing to go for a standard pattern and low-quality textiles, it cost the US approximately R1,500 for the camouflage tops and pants it bought for Afghan National Army soldiers. However, skimping too much on such a critical piece of a soldier’s kit has its own cost in reduced combat effectiveness and morale.”
SANDF already in financial dire straits
In the case of the SANDF, this volume of expenditure is certain to be questioned, given the parlous state of the army’s finances in general. Years of overspending on salaries means that there is precious little money available for the maintenance of essential mission equipment.
As many have pointed out, there is a dark irony in the fact that the SANDF’s already inadequate budget continues to be slashed — while soldiers are increasingly required for significant domestic deployments, such as guarding power stations and peacekeeping in areas with high levels of gang activity.
As Daily Maverick reported in August 2021, soldiers deployed to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng following the so-called Zuma riots were on the verge of abandoning their posts due to sheer hunger after not receiving adequate food rations for weeks. DM