Coverage of the South African State of the nation (SONA) speech was characterised more by opposition evictions and violence than the actual content of President Zuma’s address. Moreover, the speech was thin on details regarding to defence. So thin that the president devoted around 30 seconds in total towards matters of defence.
Aside from woolly references to “conflict resolution” measures being performed in places such as Sri Lanka, the only other clear mention of defence affairs relates to that of the implementation of the poorly-planned African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, or ACIRC. The SANDF’s role in this was confirmed, but with no subsequent clarification of any specifics. Nothing on the Force Intervention Brigade, nothing on the Defence Review, and absolutely nothing on regional standby forces.
Finding defence information in the SONA is more a case of paying attention to what was not said, rather than the brief two lines that made it in. The South African Defence Review remains by leagues the most critical piece of defence policy on the table for 2015, and yet little has been said about its impending discussion in parliament. A parliament, mind you, that may soon become bogged down in discussions about parliamentary process rather than items actually listed on its calender. The ACIRC force itself may be operational, and President Zuma may have announced the SANDF’s readiness in this regard, but the devil remains ,as always, in the details. The cost of deployment combined with operational constraints such as airlift capability and cross-military cooperation issues all remain outstanding. Add to this a cloud of obscurity on the details surrounding ACIRC and a potential disaster awaits.
In light of ongoing, crippling budgetary restrictions and a battalion of troops in each of the DRC and Darfur respectively, the task of sending troops abroad as part of a rapid intervention force is a risky endeavour that may cost South African lives, rather than just training and exercise time. With no guidance from the president during his speech, ACIRC and the defence review could well become the largest contributors to military decline in South Africa during 2015 and beyond.
The happier scenario may yet occur, in which the defence review is discussed and adopted in parliament, soon, and ACIRC either never has the need or capability to deploy SANDF soldiers into an ill-conceived intervention role. If the impending budget announcements and defence department policies indicate a shift, then the lack of attention during the SONA may simply be due the importance of other critical issues in South Africa. However, with little to go on for the time being, the president’s speech was cold comfort for a defence sector starved for good news. It might be that the lack of substance on defence was an oversight by the executive, but there appears to be a troubling distinct air of indifference towards defence policy in parliament these days.