Government’s big plan to save South Africa’s army has blown up in its face

 ·13 Oct 2022

The Department of Defence says that consistent cuts to its annual budget have removed any hope of it meetings its goals to “arrest the decline” of South Africa’s military any time soon.

Presenting the portfolio committee on defence this week, the department referred to its SA Defence Review 2015 document, which plots the country’s defence strategy over the short, medium and long term – spanning 20 to 35 years.

Arresting the decline of the country’s crumbling military is the first milestone of the multi-year strategy, and this is yet to be reached. In fact, things have deteriorated. The milestones are:

  • Milestone 1: Arrest the decline in critical capabilities through immediate and directed interventions;
  • Milestone 2: Reorganise and rebalance the Defence Force as the foundation for future growth;
  • Milestone 3: Create a sustainable Defence Force that can meet ordered defence commitments (interim end-state of the Defence Review);
  • Milestone 4: Enhance the Defence Force’s capacity to respond to emerging threats (end-state of the Defence Review);
  • Milestone 5: Defend the Republic against an imminent or dire threat.

As part of the review – tabled before parliament in June 2015 – the department said that, even with immediate intervention (in 2015), it would take at least five years to arrest the decline (ending 2020) and an additional five years to develop a limited and sustainable defence capability (to 2025).

“The longer the neglect is perpetuated, the greater the effort, time and cost that would be necessary to arrest the decline and restore the minimum capabilities required to safeguard South Africa’s borders, protect its maritime trade routes, conduct peace missions and humanitarian interventions, safeguard South Africa and its people and defend and protect the country against external aggression,” the department said at the time.

However, the latest presentation from the department noted that the opposite has happened: the decline of South Africa’s defence force has not been arrested, and the goal would not be met in the near-term and is unlikely to make any progress under the current administration – with its term ending in 2024.

“Due to the declining Department of Defence baseline allocation, the expected resource allocation to support the implementation of the review – through the ‘Plan to Arrest the Decline’ – has not been realised.

“The year-on-year reductions have contributed to the defence decline, with cost-driven interventions not realised and the non-cost-driven interventions compromised,” it said.

According to the DA, it is also unlikely that the defence spending threshold of close to 2% of GDP, as recommended in the review, will ever be met, with the 2022/23 budget allocation being only 0.67% of GDP.

Mounting problems

The problems at the Department of Defence are well-documented and widely reported.

Recent audit outcomes pointed to an administrative mess of epic proportions where managers are unable to keep their books in order, and the department is struggling to keep track of its assets and equipment.

Meanwhile, vehicles and other infrastructure are falling apart, with reports pointing to engineers and mechanics having to ‘cannibalise’ other machines to ensure that things can keep running.

South Africa’s military budget has suffered cuts for years, with several ministers in the portfolio warning that this is having a real-world effect on the army’s ability to defend the country.

Defence and military veterans minister Thandi Modise warned in 2022 that the historical downward trend in the defence allocation has not abated. It is likely to continue to the detriment of the SANDF and the demise of the defence industry.

Former defence and military veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned in 2021 that South Africa is at risk of losing its state-owned defence industrial base and the ability to repair, maintain and overhaul most of its defence systems.

In its latest presentation, the department flagged concerns around personnel and its inability to not only draw recruits, but to pay them as well.

The department targeted an average strength of 73,153 during the 2021/22 period but ended up with 71,235 – a shortfall of around 2,000 personnel. The department noted that the attrition rate exceeds the rate of appointments.

Meanwhile, the department’s budget allocation for compensation of R29.35 billion for the year came up against an expenditure of R33.8 billion, delivering a shortfall of R4.5 billion. While some of this was covered by a special allocation from National Treasury – reducing the shortfall to R2.7 billion – it was made very clear that no further support would be given.

The department said it would be implementing cost-saving measures by only doing Military Skills Development System recruits every other year, reducing reserve force man-days, reducing operational allowances, and activating ‘exit strategies’.

Read: South Africa’s army can’t keep track of its assets and equipment

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