In early June, after three years of debate and revision, the National Assembly passed the South African Defence Review. Spanning several hundred pages and authored by a varied and intelligent group, the Defence Review can be objectively termed a ‘good’ piece of legislation for the defence force. In a nutshell, the review effectively plots the way forward for the defence force, plucking it out of the horribly-structured cost-saving shell it was encased in and paving a useful and constructive foundation upon which to develop. The paper covers everything from the country’s foreign policy interests, to its defence force responsibilities, and the economic implications to civilians and industry alike for this new force design.

With the defence review now passed, the dead wood can be cut away and a new force slowly regenerated from the core that remains.

Naturally, as the review was passed so began the criticism. Despite there being a multi-year consultation period and many pages of addenda included in the new defence review, the criticism of scope and scale constantly emerge. David Maynier, the Aemocratic Alliance shadow minister for defence, for example, is concerned about funding questions that linger, as well as the possibility of a new “arms deal” that could emerge. Maynier has called for a revision of the review, despite it being revised constantly. It is unfortunate that attempts to hijack the review are being made just as the engine gets started. The review was not tasked with discussing the much broader political concerns on arms deals, and has an entire chapter dedicated to funding and procurement, written by Helmoed Heitman, one of the country’s foremost military experts.

The 2014 document has designs and strategies for all stages of potential funding, recommends greater procurement transparency, and seeks local investment. Beyond this, the specific force design plans for the SANDF make logical sense for the military South Africa is hoping to create. With the defence review now passed, the dead wood can be cut away and a new force slowly regenerated from the core that remains. Calling for a revision and abandonment now is unhelpful and, frankly, obstructive.

SANDF soldiers board a SAMIL truck while on operations in South Africa - Photo by Trent Perkins
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SANDF soldiers board a SAMIL truck while on operations in South Africa – Photo by Trent Perkins

In terms of scale, the SANDF’s role under the new review would expand into that of broader peacekeeping and critical humanitarian assistance when required. This has received scathing criticism by Savo Heleta, who likens the attempt by the SANDF to evolve into humanitarian peacekeepers to that of the United States’ co-opting of NGOs in the Near and Middle East. Heleta strongly believes that any humanitarian involvement by the SANDF would be tantamount to an invasion of the NGO aid sphere. This is bady flawed thinking.

Heleta strongly believes that any humanitarian involvement by the SANDF would be tantamount to an invasion of the NGO aid sphere. This is bady flawed thinking.

The SANDF is not seeking to replace NGOs with its own uniformed version of aid workers. It is correct to observe that the SANDF lacks the skills to be immunologists, development economists and migration trackers. What is incorrect is assuming that the SANDF seeks to take these roles on. A quick visit to the peace mission training facility at the Army College in Centurion would show this. The SANDF’s intentions lie more in working to provide a first-response type of humanitarianism. A rapid intervention followed by bridge repair and basic medical aid, for example, versus the creation of refugee camps and organisation of engineering works.

The SANDF is learning, and should learn, how to act as humanitarians. The Army includes engineers, doctors and water treatment experts. Leaving them in base because it might tread on an NGO’s budgetary toes in the combing months of stabilisation operations is the kind of thinking befitting a conscript army, not a professional, specialised force envisioned in the defence review.

The defence review has a firm grasp on what capabilities the defence force ought to have in order to fulfil the South African foreign policy of the future. Reactions to the paper’s passing in National Assembly are premature. As much of a battle as it was to get the review passed in the first place, the real struggle to implement it now awaits. There will be ample time for the detractors to snipe from the barricades while this process continues. For now, it is encouraging to see a rapid shift in the SANDF’s language during briefings to align with the defence review. “Arresting the decline” appears to be so much of a defence buzzword in the past two weeks that it may well become a new drinking game in the officers’ mess.

The notion that the SANDF should adhere to an old, dysfunctional stereotype, both financially and operationally, is wrongheaded. The use of the military as a blunt instrument is not an optimal use of a large group of trained personnel able to do a range of tasks in dangerous places. The Bush Wars are over, and it’s time to start planning for a military that can be used as a multi-role tool rather than a blunt instrument of force.

As mentioned before, there is no plan B for the defence review if it is not funded. This alone makes the importance of stretching the troops’ capabilities paramount. Procurement concerns and the threat to NGOs’ ability to conduct humanitarian activities are being made far too early in the process. Rather, eyes should be on the current gradual integration of the review into the various services of the SANDF. Far more critical now is the review’s legitimacy in the eyes of the SANDF’s epaulet-wearing caretakers.

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