South Africa


Part 2: The SANDF – Let’s sell off most of the stuff from the arms deal; nobody uses it anyway

Part 2: The SANDF – Let’s sell off most of the stuff from the arms deal; nobody uses it anyway
Members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) patrol during a joint South African Police Service (SAPS) and SANDF patrol on Day 31 of the national lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 April 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK)

In 2017, Pravin Gordhan urged South Africa to ‘join the dots’ between corruption and the Zuma administration. John Matisonn joins those dots in this eight-part series. In this installment, he picks up on a statement by the 2015 Defence Review chairperson, Roelf Meyer, who said ‘the Defence Force is in a critical state of decline’, citing ‘the inability to meet current standing defence commitments and the lack of critical mobility’.

Read Part 1 in the series here.

Overhauling the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is a multiyear project that involves a substantial amount of repurposing based on policies that will have to be thoroughly reviewed and fleshed out much more systematically than current policies are.

Military experts find a lack of clear thinking in government about what the real threats are, and a failure to integrate security, defence and foreign policies based on the actual budgets available.

Meanwhile, the South African Army is engaged in a war in northern Mozambique and peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Navy is patrolling for piracy off the Mozambique coast.

A new, thorough integrated security, defence and foreign policy review should start immediately so reforms can follow. A few short-term measures could be taken, like repurposing tracts of urban land which lost their military purpose after World War 2 to be used for housing.

In Cape Town, an acute housing shortage has failed to dislodge a budget standoff between the Defence Department and the City over the cost of buying the Wingfield air base.

The SANDF wants hundreds of millions of rands, which the City of Cape Town cannot afford. This is exactly the bureaucratic problem a new government must resolve.

Write off the money. It’s an intragovernmental transaction. Give the land to the City or the Department of Human Settlements. The country will benefit more than the price of the land. Thousands of people’s lives will improve with a solid roof over their heads in a neighbourhood community. The same applies to Transnet and other state-owned enterprises which hold unused urban and peri-urban land.

That move alone would create thousands of jobs, a small down payment on the enormous job creation that is possible if we approach every department in this problem-solving frame of mind.

The hot war in Mozambique is cause for immediate attention.

Ten years ago in Bangui, Central African Republic, 15 South African soldiers died and 27 were injured in the biggest battle the Army has fought since 1994. None of the failings was the fault of the troops, who performed exceptionally well.

But assessments of the management of the deployment are devastating. The government’s own 2015 Defence Review criticised the lack of an adequate policy framework for the mission, reaching this damning conclusion:

“In many mature democracies, such catastrophic strategic failure probably would have toppled the government.”

In public debate at the time, it caused little more than a whimper.

Since Bangui, military weaknesses have become worse.

On 24 July 2023, Defence Minister Thandi Modise admitted that the defence force is becoming more and more unsustainable, while an expert believes if we were attacked, South Africans would be defenceless.

The last Defence Review, in 2015, at 344 pages, beats the US National Defence Strategy at 80 pages and Australia’s at 112 pages, but fails to choose the trade-offs the budget requires. 

The Bangui precedent is alarming.  

“From both strategic and policy perspectives, SA military involvement in the CAR registered close to zero on the scale of strategic outcome and effectiveness,” the 2015 official Defence Review said, pointing to “the gulf that developed between idealistic policy outlooks and the elements of strategy”.

South African soldiers fought without adequate guiding intelligence or the well-planned political and military backing to which they were entitled.

The CAR misadventure, begun by former president Thabo Mbeki and continued by Jacob Zuma, requires rethinking how South Africa’s foreign policy aligns with the SANDF.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between South Africa and the CAR said SA’s purpose was to train CAR forces to combat the Seleka rebels. When the Seleka forces approached, CAR forces stood aside. South African soldiers fought bravely, skilfully – and alone.

 “After six years working with the CAR armed forces to combat the Seleka rebels, the CAR forces (despite being the primary rationale for the governing MoU) played no role when asked to do battle against the Seleka rebels.

“When considering the means, SA foreign policy did not map out a clear pathway for bringing in the SANDF as a policy instrument, but the SANDF nonetheless became a prominent feature of the country’s foreign policy into Africa.” 

The day our troops left, the CAR president fled the capital for good.

This was not an isolated failure in an otherwise well-oiled machine. 

“The Defence Force is in a critical state of decline,” concluded the 2015 Defence Review chairperson, Roelf Meyer, citing “the inability to meet current standing defence commitments and the lack of critical mobility…”

So alarmed was the review’s panel that it called on government to make a choice.

“Left unchecked, and at present funding levels, this decline will severely compromise and further fragment the defence capability … (It must have) either a greater budget allocation or a significantly scaled-down level of ambition and commitment…”

The government did not choose.  

Each year when the defence budget comes before Parliament, the military officials, the minister, the generals, the arms company lobbyists and defence analysts blame the funding shortage for their failure to maintain our ships, planes, submarines and helicopters. They mention legitimate complaints that we also don’t have some equipment we really need, like cargo planes.

Then comes the turn of Treasury and the finance minister, who point out that South Africa cannot afford more, given the needs of the poor.

Then everyone goes off for the weekend, on to next week’s budget vote.

Everyone has defended their own turf: Defence has pointed the finger at Treasury to explain its failure to have a basic functioning navy and air force, thus defending its base. And Treasury has shown it is being careful with public funds, thus protecting its base.

Everybody has done their job, and the job is shadow boxing – while the military malfunction continues.

Everyone who wants to know is fully aware that billions are being squandered each year on services that are not doing what they are supposed to do, yet nothing changes.

In Bangui, the shortage of needed equipment was clear.

Soldiers could have been extracted quicker if the Air Force had the right aircraft for “strategic airlift” – cargo planes like the C130 (or the Russian version, the AN-12, or the European Airbus A400M). 

The SAAF relied on contractors who breached their contract and did not show up. Our soldiers were fighting “blind” – they did not have air intelligence to see where the enemy was.

The SA Navy’s vessels can no longer be made combat-ready to execute the full range of missions they were designed for … virtually no maritime domain awareness exists around South Africa’s coasts today

The SANDF’s C130s are 60 years old. They need a few more helicopters (but not the Agustas bought in the arms deal), some Toyota 4×4 Land Cruisers and more drones, including cheap ones bought off the shelf from civilian manufacturers, according to Stellenbosch University military science professor, Abel Esterhuyse.

The products of the infamous arms deal, which supplied the Air Force and Navy, do not operate. Most of the 26 Gripen jet fighters rarely fly and at least half remain in long-term storage. Likewise for the 24 Hawk fighter trainer jets.

Four Gripens were dispatched to Kinshasa, DRC, via Ndola. They were then sent home.

The Gripens and Hawks accounted for more than half the massive arms deal bill, which has left our military too short of money to maintain what it has. The three submarines and 30 Agusta helicopters see little service.

The unavoidable conclusion is that much of the arms deal – valued by researcher Paul Holden at R142-billion in 2020 currency – should go.  Esterhuyse thinks only the corvettes and attached helicopters were priorities that should remain. 

The Navy has done little work stopping illegal fishing since about 2005, according to fishing and military sources. 

A private security expert showed me on his cellphone how he tracks both the fishing vessels with transponders on, and the ones with the transponders off to attempt to fool the navy. But they have little to worry about. The same expert showed me where the vessels that should be used to trace them were – in port.

A properly functioning military will be sorely needed in the coming decades. 

There is violent instability in northern Mozambique. Climate and other natural disasters are increasing. Illegal fishing is not being policed. Drug smuggling is a huge problem, and domestic instability remains a risk – but the government’s strategy to address these problems is not in the Review.

A reforming government needs to spell out what our strategic objective is in northern Mozambique as part of our response to Islamic militancy in Africa. This is a vital long-term interest of South Africa.

The Cabo Delgado conflict began escalating about five years ago and has at times been extremely violent, including civilian beheadings. Its rise appears to be associated with the arrival of gas extraction companies, France’s Total being the biggest.

At an investment of $20-billion (R378-billion), it will be life-changing for much of that country and beyond, but for many, it has been life-changing in the worst possible way – in fact, deadly. It has moved communities, affected local fishing communities’ way of life, and fuelled corruption in the Mozambican government.

Violence appears to have been fuelled mostly by this social disruption. Should South Africa be there at all? The underlying solution requires a substantial non-military policy. South Africa’s current government does not appear to have the capability to conduct such large-scale assistance. 

How about our oceans? 

“The SA Navy’s vessels can no longer be made combat-ready to execute the full range of missions they were designed for … virtually no maritime domain awareness exists around South Africa’s coasts today”, the Review concluded.

Misalignment is obvious. For example, currently, the Navy conducts regular demining training around the Cape Town coastline, even though demining has no current practical relevance. And yet, that training takes it through the waters where perlemoen (abalone) is smuggled freely and near to where illegal fishing continues unmolested, according to the same local security expert.

Planes and naval vessels that we cannot afford to maintain and are not part of core requirements will have to go. Money will be lost. But resources must be properly used to meet real needs. And any new spending must be based on likely operations of the coming years.

Support for getting rid of most of the arms deal equipment is more widespread than I expected. 

Retired University of the Western Cape professor, Keith Gottschalk, agreed that if the budget is not increased, a cargo plane would have been of far more use than the Gripens or Hawks.

The fitness of soldiers is in question.

The work of soldiers is physical. That’s why effective defence forces maintain an average age of 28, and retire most soldiers on pensions young enough so they can boost their pensions with a second career. The SANDF’s average age is 48.

Defence retains people who no longer fit their post profile or who cannot be economically employed.

Official policy requires a 40:30:30 split between personnel, operating costs and capital expenditure, but personnel costs took off.  

Officially it’s now at 55%, but the Brenthurst Foundation believes the real figure is closer to 80%, and Esterhuyse believes it’s as high as 85% if the cost of new uniforms and other items allocated separately are included. If these estimates are close to reality, it’s a bright red warning light.

The 2015 Defence Review, still the SANDF’s prevailing guideline document, found that “the SA Army is no longer in a position to conduct major combat operations, nor fully roll out the forces needed to safeguard South Africa’s borders… 

“The SA Army is further finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the deployment of its soldiers in the various peace missions across the continent.”

Yet experts speak of vanity spending and pomp, top-ranking officers travelling in convoys of black cars, white kombis, blue lights, met by red carpets and guards of honour. A military expert described the SANDF organisational chart as a mushroom – top heavy.

We pamper our elite.

Yet threats are changing, as are modes of war.

In Ukraine, civilian-manufactured drones are critical and often cheap.  In Somalia, al-Shabaab bought drones off the shelf for about R700 each to face a Somali air force without them, Esterhuyse said.

As election campaigning heats up next year, we need to prepare for cyber attacks. There is already evidence of extensive efforts on social media to manipulate South African opinion over the war in Ukraine by offering increasingly impactful alternative narratives.

How the country handles these problems will determine our sovereignty – whether our future is decided by South Africans.

Careful assessment will make adjustments to the recommendations offered here. But the country requires decisiveness. The reforms needed are very substantial. The courage of our soldiers surely deserves no less. So do our fishermen and women.

So do voters. DM

Coming in Part 3, Education: Believe it or not, affordable reforms can be implemented fast.

Journalist, author and policy consultant John Matisonn’s book “Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform”, explains how SA’s missteps led to the current malaise and how to change. It is based on four years in the Mandela Administration, as a member of the SABC interim board in 2017-2018, work done in the United Nations as chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan and Acting Project Manager of the United Nations election project, and a lifetime study of successes and failures in national economic turnarounds that started at the University of Chicago, where he studied the cases of Japan and Russia.   


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Absolutely agree that we should sell off all the “Arms Deal” equipment; should get a good price, because, whilst of course never been fired, they have scarcely had any use at all. Sell of all the military lan, sack all the soldiers, sailors, aircrews et al, and turn Simons Town into the World’s premier, southern hemisphere yachting centre.

  • Alpha Sithole says:

    No mention of the new naval vessels, built in Cape Town and the first recently (last week) handed over to the SA Navy in Simonstown? Sea trials were conducted in False Bay and beyond… or is this Top Secret? If so, sorry…

  • Alley Cat says:

    I just get sad and angry reading this. The same defence force that maintained mirage fighters and designed and built the upgrades as the cheetah is now non-existent. The same Armscor that developed the rooivalk helicopter and ratels which is now pretty much bankrupt. This analysis is a mirror image of the rest of the country. A so called strategic plan that ignores the most important issues.
    And meanwhile long line trawlers from various countries are decimating our fish stocks with impunity. Viva ANC viva!

  • James Kerr says:

    Wow, seriously disappointed. This article is not a “join the dots” input. It is a set of rambling statements that provides no way forward. The starting point should have been the von Clausewitz quote: The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.
    The SANDF is needed as deterrent for entities aiming to contest the country’s sovereignty. The force design is related to this requirement. With this as a background, the products being bashed are actually required. This capability must not be sold off. This article seems to be ramblings of someone that does not have an understanding of war. Refer to von Clausewitz: War is the continuation of politics by other means. If there are no other “means” then what?
    The SANDF application is a government element (goals) that must be addressed. The disconnect between required projection of defence capability and supplied defence funding has resulted in a Defence Force in a critical state of decline. The MoD has acknowledged this. The budget speech 2023 tasks makes this clear. The Force Design related to the threat environment is the outcome asked.
    The reality is that there is an insurgency challenge coming nearer. SA has had over two years warning of this status. The “join the dot understanding” should be that we have done nothing to address this, even with the warning sirens going off. Final von Clausewitz quote: To secure peace is to prepare for war.

  • Michael Schmidt says:

    Technically, yes, we require airlift for rapid insertion of troops and company-level equipment far more than fighter-bombers, yet our new Maritime Domain Awareness Satellites (the first three of nine launched last January) should take care of marine intelligence – but we’d still need actual ships for interdiction and offsore patrol vessels would be the best option without deploying expensive corvettes suited for more strategic force projection (but we signed up for inshore patrol vessels instead, good vessels for combating perly-poaching, but unsuited for the deep sea). On the Battle of Bangui, the best account of which is Thompson, Hoffstatter & Oatway’s book of the same name, it’s interesting to note that *after* it was over, four SAAF Gripen fighter-bombers were scrambled at Makado Air Force Base (notably, Air Force HQ dithered – here’s that useless generalship in play – so 2 Sq was approached directly by SANDF Joint Ops Support and scrambled) and flown to Kinshasa, DRC, via Ndola in Zambia’s Copperbelt where they refuelled, along with a 28 Sq Hercules carrying their Gripen bombs and munitions. Three SAAF Oryx helicopters were flown to Entebbe, Uganda, where they were joined by the 1 Para Bn Reserve Company of about 150 ParaBats flown by 28 Sq Hercules from Bloemfontein. Two 16 Sq Rooivalk attack helicopters were transported by Illyushin from Bloemfontein to N’Djamena, Chad, then on to Gemena, DRC, a 45-minute flight from Bangui. All too little, too late.

    • Part 2?
      Wonder how part 1 read..
      Naive editorial.. Whoever wrote this clearly is mistaken that we live in a peaceful little corner..filled with fynbos & rooibos tea & the current war in Ukraine, endless coups in Africa central /west.. Middle East tensions..geopolitical tensions between US & China & pretty much the kitchen sink that comes with the upcoming WW3, won’t affect us.
      Funny..chances are the pen here, lives in safety behind walls with armed response & all manner of security gadgets for peace of mind, shouldn’t a State also live in such sense of security also?

  • Andre Swart says:

    The ENEMY of the SA citizens is from within!

    That internal enemy is waging a WAR against the citizens while the SANDF is ‘looking the other way’ … denying that the THREAT against SA is from within.

    How will fighter jets and submarines protect the SA citizens from the ENEMY from within?

    SELL !

  • graham74 says:

    A complex article with an overly optimistic view of the state of the SANDF, specifically the value of 20-year old, poorly maintained naval prime mission equipment . Along with dearth of MDA capacity, the lack of maritime law enforcement capability and no proper maritime patrol aircraft with ISAR equipment shouts SEA BLINDNESS!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options