The ongoing fight by the South African Army and its allies in the DRC has thus far been going quite well. With material gains made against M23, who has now been pushed out of the Kibati Heights and have yet to make a serious threatening move in retaliation, the doubt surrounding the SANDF’s contribution to this mission is somewhat lifted. But just how solidified is the SA Army’s capabilities?
The SA Army resembles a collection of pre-1994 officers and senior enlisted personnel from both the old former South African Defence Force (SADF) and various liberation movements’ armed groups, such as the ANC’s MK. Combined, there is a wealth of experience on irregular warfare, both in practicing and countering it. But the DRC and Bangui are different battles. In this modern low-intensity conflict environment, the good conduct of SANDF soldiers could either be a result of this historical experience in combat, albeit not in this current form, or of a genuine in-house development of the new generations of soldiers being trained since the end of apartheid.
Developing a tactical doctrine for modern conflict requires a significant depth of academic and military analytical thought, something which the SANDF possesses, but only in specific areas of expertise. There is distinct lack of fresh postgraduate thought entering the military at any level, whether regular or reserve force. As such, much of the current tactical approaches which we see in the DRC (at a surface level at least) is a result of lessons learned from a historical SANDF rather than one on a permanent modern conflict footing. Put simply, the SANDF has not experienced this tempo of operations since it was at war with Angola, and as such one must question whether the current operations are being done so proficiently because of older officers and NCOs rather than a peacetime, complacent military.
In essence it is probably a mixture of both old guard and new, individual soldiers who are holding their own and conducting themselves well that is contributing to an overall capable military. But what happens twenty years down the line, when the last postgraduate in the SANDF leaves and the officers are retired? Although the budget concerns are a short term priority for the military, a thought must be spared for the Army’s future doctrinal thought, and just how it will attract the right minds to assist in developing a post-bush war era military.