Our play-play army

If South Africa is serious about protecting its growing business interests on the continent, while nurturing friendly governments and continental institutions of state, then it will have to accept the military costs of this. At home that will mean ignoring two romances: pacifism and racial bean counting.

This country’s African adventures have been understandably curtailed since 1994, with successive governments keen to show ours as singing in a choir of multilateralism through especially the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. This has seen limited foreign assistance provided to allied states and a focus on such things as emergency relief. But talking softly with no stick goes only so far, and a severely depleted local military has had to make do with relationships with African counterparts such as Nigeria.

Even so, there has thus been some public shock at last week’s battle in the Central African Republic’s Bangui when SA forces totalling about 200 troops came under a day-long attack from irregulars said to include youngsters, Chadian-speakers and Islamist fighters. While the South Africans held their base and inflicted casualties estimated at up to 500 on their enemy, they did so without heavy equipment or aerial support.

They have now mostly relocated to Uganda, leaving behind Central African Standby Brigade troops, along with allied military personnel of France and the US.
The political outcome of such engagements, not the casualty score, is what determines how potential foes will view the SANDF, and thus how safe future deployments will be. Since 2000, and without today’s hue and cry from some commentators about the supposed illegality of these things, SA’s forces have been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea/Ethiopia, Burundi, Liberia and the Sudan.

Due to severe cutbacks in military resourcing these years of democracy, such deployments contain a wing-and-a-prayer element. The country spends 4,4% of its national budget on defence, 9th lowest among 36 countries surveyed by the World Bank. The army, at 50% of SANDF personnel, has only 39 000 members of all sorts. Two thirds of all military personnel are above the rank of private, the average age is over 30 years, and 28% are women. The military frets at matching rank and personnel to politically-motivated racial profiling, leaving even this small force with almost 10 000 vacancies by March last year.

Meanwhile, dodgy arms acquisitions for especially the navy and the air force since 1994 leaves the army relying on updating 50-year old tanks, 30-year old personnel carriers, and little mobile artillery. It acts without heavy lift capacity and bases strategy on a reserve force that has largely disappeared.

Where traditional reserve regiments exist, these are called up almost continuously to man a relatively small continental commitment, yet they find themselves under attack from within. Thus the Transvaal Scottish, the SA Irish, Cape Town Highlanders and other skeletal remnant of professionalism may soon be scrapped, their battle honours furled in the interests of a deadly political correctness.

Such forces as South Africa can still deploy cannot forever be expected to stave off embarrassing battlefield defeatif the country declines to invest in them, treasure what traditions they have, and equip them for 21st century fighting. Doing so means strategic clear-sightedness and an end of pandering to ideas of the military being a veteran’s employment bureau.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 2 April 2013)