As the SANDF readies for fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, ghosts of arms procurements in the Nineties, along with budgetary negligence and a fixation on racial bean counting threatens it more than any rag-tag rebel group.
South Africa’s military are a shadow of their former selves, understandably having been slashed in size since 1994’s democratisation. At the height of the Namibian and Angolan “border war” of the 1970s and 1980s, SA spent 4% of its GDP on the military. This is now down to 1.4%, putting this country in 22nd place out of 36 countries surveyed by the World Bank.
That sort of spend might seem normal for a middling country at peace and about right for one that is only the world’s 25th largest in economic output. But it happens at a time when the military is in desperate need of catching up in modern materiel, its shortfall coming from the international arms embargo against SA from the 1960s onward. That embargo allowed for a flourishing local arms industry but was effective in starving especially the air force and the navy of top range equipment that couldn’t be cost-effectively produced at home.
One result was the necessary arms procurements of the nineties, giving these arms of the SANDF desperately needed frigates, submarines, trainer and fighter aircraft, and helicopters. The cost of these things precluded the army from fulfilling its own needs, particularly the replacement of its main battle tank, the Oliphant, itself a throwback to the British Centurion of the 1950s. The need for a heavy lift air capacity also fell by the wayside.
But commitments have increased since the purchases, and the SANDF has, since 2000, been deployed in the DRC, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Liberia, and the Sudan, as well as backing local policing operations, fighting piracy in the Mozambican channel, and patrolling the country’s 4 471km land borders.
How it manages is a mystery. Coming from an integration of the old SADF, “homeland” militaries and the non-statutory forces of the ANC, PAC, Azapo and Inkatha, the military has become a partly social service for oldsters. Its average age of riflemen is in the thirties, and privates are only a third of personnel; whites at 15% of the total, and women forming a third.
Meanwhile, expensive weapons are often unable to be used for a lack of money to keep them operational. Thus, of the 250 tanks, only 38 are active; only 80 of the 240 rooikat armoured cars; six of the 26 Gripen fighter jets; and none of the Augusta light utility helicopters.
Some defence analysts, backed by the opposition Democratic Alliance, want the SANDF downsized by 20 000 men to a permanent 50 000, backed by a reactivated reserve force. This, they suggest, will allow for intensified training in the leaner force, and for spending on maintenance of existing equipment.
That, along with even minor increases in defence spending, would also allow the SANDF to look to re-equipping the army, poor cousin the arms deal but most likely to be deployed across the continent. That is if the current Seriti inquiry into possible corruption in the air force and navy procurements don’t make any new significant arms deal politically impossible.
Department of Defence by race
|All other ranks||67.4%|
|Gripen fighters||(6 out of 26)|
|Submarines||(2 out of 3)|
|Tanks||(38 out of 250)|
|Armoured cars||(80 out of 240)|
– By Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 3 September 2013)