William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Time for the SANDF to slim down and shape up

It’s not a national secret that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is in serious trouble. Its barracks are unfit for human habitation, it has been haemorrhaging expertise and its soldiers teetered on the brink of mutiny in a protest march on the Union Buildings

So when the government’s leaked long-term military strategy review reports a “critical state of decline”, it’s merely stating what has been obvious for at least a decade. According to a study by Gerhard Louw of Stellenbosch University, drawing on the 2012 Defence Review, says the SANDF is “critically deficient in the skill, motivation, and ethos that is required to operate a ‘modern system’,” given that it has to “retain human resources that are no longer employable in an operational capacity, which exacerbates the DOD’s relentless exodus of technically skilled and professionally qualified personnel … average standards of military proficiency are therefore continuously decreasing”.

The defence review, which Reuters news agency this week quotes extensively from, has been accepted by the cabinet but not yet released. It states that even if urgent action were taken immediately, it would take at least a decade to remedy the neglect. What is needed is “massive investment”, with the defence budget potentially doubling from R14-billion last year to R40bn by 2014.

This, it says soothingly, is a mere 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), a ratio “well below” equivalent nations. In fact, should South Africa want to be truly safe, it should spend R116-billion a year, or 3.3% of GDP, on the military.

What a load of bollocks. What the SANDF needs is not simply more money, more matériel, and more men, but to start using existing resources better. The SANDF needs to slim down and shape up.

First, there’s the ballooning 97 000-strong muster. A modern military is not a retirement home at which to park one’s aged liberation war cadres who are no longer fit for purpose. South Africa has the oldest infantry troops in the world but the SANDF says it can conceive of no “humane exit mechanism” to thin its ranks.

Then there’s weaponry. Not surprisingly, the top brass and the defence contractors are at one that SA needs more “heavy-combat ability”, presumably tanks and attack helicopters. Unfortunately, the SANDF is already sitting with an array of expensive hardware that it cannot deploy, either because it lacks the skilled crews – hence 12 mothballed Gripen aircraft – or because it can’t afford the running costs.

That raises the use that these men and matériel are put to. The air force, for example, has been reduced to being a flying limousine service for African National Congress politicians. The government refuses to reveal the cost of flights by the president and the deputy-president on “security grounds”. However, it’s a fact that while the SAAF’s helicopter squadrons receive a generous allocation for VIP flights – last year the Durban-based 15 Squadron got 300 hours flying time to ferry the Zuma entourage to and from Nkandla – they get very little for training and nothing at all for sea and mountain rescue.

Finally, there is the extent of the SANDF’s mandate. The military’s first duty is to protect our borders. Anything else is not only a costly addition, but detracts from it being able to execute its primary function.

The government, however, is increasingly using the SANDF as an extension of diplomacy, to project power elsewhere in Africa. That’s a dangerous vortex. That’s a thankless task. Most critically, that’s futile – there are always more places to intervene and interests to protect than there is taxpayer money. Ask the citizens of the United States. So while the occasional humanitarian intervention might be a necessary and worthy undertaking, South African troops are being deployed far too readily and for far too long.

The review argues that the shift from securing territorial integrity to achieving diplomatic goals as a compelling reason for bigger budgets. At present levels of expenditure, “the military cannot underpin Pretoria’s diplomatic and commercial expansion in Africa … There must either be a greater budget allocation or a significantly scaled-down level of ambition and commitment”.

In case we don’t grasp the urgency, it warns: “Old colonial powers such as France, and new economic ones such as China, are flexing their muscles.” Americans, again, will recognise the threatening bogeyman tactic, the justification of every act of US military adventurism, stretching back at least a century.

The generals are naturally keen on the iron-hand-in-velvet-glove philosophy. It gives the troops battle experience and a chance to play – costs covered by the African Union or, more accurately, the United Nations – with expensive toys that otherwise would otherwise never be taken out of storage. They might even get to go with Big Daddy to buy more lekker goodies.

That’s all far more exciting than the simple but boring stuff that the SANDF command should actually do: improve morale, training and discipline. That would mean investing less in cutting-edge military technology and more in old-fashioned Sergeant-Majors.

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    • Karney

      Have listened to stories of incompetence, laziness,and corruption that are real shockers, from ex/ retired army men and one still working for the army. The writing has been on the wall for ages. Also heard from a man who’s mate flies Zuma around in helicopters. One of the trips was a 7km spin down the road from Kings House to Entabeni Hospital for a recent check up. The cost of this he told me would make your eyes water.

    • http://electricediting.com David Merrington

      The SANDF has already declined, but it can go further down if they wish (easily)
      Almost all the service personnel we see now days are too fat for their uniforms.

      Military bases are actually broken into and robbed because no-one stands guard any more. One of our submarines is permanently out of action due to failure to read the service manual right in the beginning. The Chief Instructor at Submarine School has been denied further promotion because he insisted that the courses not be dumbed down.

      And of course, as William points out, our SAAF barely exists any more except as a transport service for Zuma and colleagues in “government”

    • bernpm

      The members of the Arms industry are getting excited to have a repeat of the 1997 arms deal with a more than ever corrupt government.
      The old players are still around and might need an update of their bank accounts.

      Alternatively: fold up the SADF and spread the remaining hardware under the fire brigades in the various municipalities. Just in case Botswana or Zim will try to conquer SA.

    • Brianb

      Its all a mega cash splash. Where is the enemy ??

    • http://nil Gillian Katz van der Heijden

      Thank you for the EYE-OPENER.No wonder the pirates of Somalia do what they like.

      Another department that needs investigation is: ‘What’s happening to UIF payments?’
      A staff member has paid her monthly subs here for 23 years, but never a receipt from that Department. So if the Employer responsible does not furnish the employee with a receipt (banking proof of payment) what can he/she produce? There should be an accummulated build-up of benefit? But after 23 years he/she will only see 6 months of a few rand return that might buy a loaf or two of bread. By the way, very few WORKERS realize the UIF system was the brain child of the most hated European King of the Belgians (Belgian Congo) 19th century, due to his Royal concern for the UNEMPLOYED in Belgium and Europe. What? how, who is keeping tags on UIF investments.?

    • george orwell

      Yes, the army needs stream-lining.

      But while I understand your emphasis on personel, South Africa needs the roll-out of new arms. S.A. needs to be clever and to take a leaf out of Obama’s military book – as he took a leaf out of apartheid SA’s book and introduced “Detention without Trial” to the US in 2012 (NDA Act)

      Obama went one up on Bush and introduced the presidential assassination prerogative, which allows him to run (what a lead US investigative journalist termed) “Kill Tuesdays” in the Oval Office.

      On Tuesdays, Obama sits with military staff and yays or nays taking out ‘enemies’ via remote-control Predator Drone Missile.

      This Zuma could easily also do. Anyone from a rhino poacher to Malema or the Public Prosecutor could be silenced with new cutting edge drones. In their Arms Fair Marketing Brochures the US military-industrial boasts of remarkable precision that can ‘send a missile up the nostril of your enemy’.

      This is part of making the military machine more focused and cost-effective. US, UK and Israel are investing heavily in drones, lasers and robotics.

      Standard subs and jets are now outdated. Armed Predator and Hellfire Drones is the way of the future, along with the new Laser Aerial System: a giant Laser (unveiled by the US military 3 weeks ago) that takes out planes overhead.

      Zuma neglects his role as Commander-in-Chief.

      He can have no higher role model than President Barack “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Obama in…

    • george orwell

      In support of my previous comments, a couple of inks:

      “Secret Kill List a Test of Obama’s Principles” – New York Times


      “US Navy Deploys its new Futuristic Laser Weapon” – NY Daily News


      “Drone Wars: Killing By Remote Control”


      “Lockheed reveals portable Laser Weapon”


      Apparently with ‘tagging’ and ‘face recognition’ technology, coupled with NSA global surveillance, the SA Presidency and Military – if it upgrades its weaponry – will find that programming and directing sophisticated new weaponry (some drones are the size of humming birds and can deliver a poison chemical into your home) will be all they need to defend themselves and the land.

    • george orwell

      Last post … forgot to add in this important article:

      “The President’s Private Army: NSA spying is central in carrying out the Obama administration’s assassination program”


      This points to the fact the S.African Presidency also need to invest in the highly sophisticated spying tools developed by the NSA, many of them now for sale.

      In order to update the SANDF and make it more of a US-style ‘lean machine’, Zuma needs to invest in cutting-edge surveillance, which costs less than other rapidly out-moded materiel.

      As Americans (and most global citizenry) are now being surveilled at all times by the NSA (as Ed Snowden revealed), so Zuma needs to step up surveillance of Southern African citizens.

      With the latest tech, the SANDF will be better able to monitor potential enemies, within and without the borders. Just the “chilling effect” of knowing surveillance could be followed up by a precision drone strike would be enough to keep people in check and nip unfriendly opposition in the bud.

      Leftists will complain about collateral damage because nine civilians get killed to every terrorist taken out by US drone in Afghanistan apparently. But if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, surely?

    • http://M&G Diana

      Well said. It should include losing the pink slippers when buy your groceries in uniform. If this is the indication of our “state of the nation’s” defense force I wonder how long it will take for big brother to intervene ~ if only under the pretext to get their hands on our resources. Not that there is much development in that area either.
      How sad we have become. Now “min dae” does not have the same meaning – does it now reflect the time before total collapse? Just wondering

    • cc

      Contrary to ‘good news’ in President Zuma’s State of the Nation address, it reflects that actual state of the nation.

    • bernpm

      @George Orwell: Interesting stuff…..but…if SA cannot keep an old fashioned submarine afloat by not following manuals, how can they ever send a drone in the right direction let alone “on target”??,
      Spears and bow & arrow would be the answer to create a feeling of safety for the nation while Zuma hides in his Nkandla fortification.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/williamsaundersonmeyer/2014/03/29/time-for-the-sandf-to-slim-down-and-shape-up/ proactive

      WSM eish!……“It’s not a national secret”…? But what if it was meant to be & declared high treason?

      We have intimate relations & open borders with Zimbabwe, where the whole of Africa crosses without a valid passport, Swaziland has been made safe by marrying away all available princesses and so has Mozambique.

      Botswana is a declared enemy & takeover target by the ANCYL due to its Diamonds & a too honest & stable government. Fortunately, Namibia’s border is lion infested & a too high risk for any army to dare to cross. Only contender is Lesotho, a tough cookie with their hardened mountain soldiers- but kept pacified due to its water sales.

      It seems the SANDF has fine tuned their requirements! It is essential to protect the secrecy of our troop’s fitness levels- not to reveal belly sizes and their BMI’s!
      AND: One person was overlooked & not yet “affirmed” is good old Van der Merwe with his jokes!

      @G Katz v.d H: ……….historical it was Switzerland in 1789. In 1901 the Belgian city of Ghent established a system known as the “Ghent system,”


      Every registered employer knows that all employees need to be registered with the Dep. of Labor & declared on form UI-19. The old “blue card” was replaced by the ID. see: UIF Act 63/2001 & amended.
      No receipts need to be issued- all employees can check with the Labor Department themselves if in doubt.

    • J.J.

      @ George Orwell

      I get your point (all very tongue in-the-cheek) but in practice, as soon as Zuma/SA does that, I’m OUTTA HERE – PRONTO!!

      I’d rather live in a country with relatively unsophisticated equipment in relation to “putting down it’s own people”, but I fully agree that South Africa should get it’s house in order urgently in terms of self-defense. Those here who comment by asking: “where’s the enemy” obviously live in cloud cuckoo land and how no idea of how geopolitics work and are also blind as to what is happening in the world. Does South Africa have resources? Just because we are “far away”, doesn’t mean we are safe. We also happen to be a member of BRICS.

    • J.J.

      @ bernpm #

      In fact Denel has developed highly sophisticated drones for export.

    • baz

      Well said, W S M……Our defence force beyond repair…what’s new!
      Apparently, there is no more real training or upgrades and discipline is not part of
      the so called training.
      Maybe our unemployed should enlist…least they will have free accommodation & food
      plus a uniform to save on clothing!!

    • Tom Evans

      The army has been involved in every coup detat in Africa and my take on things is that this is the real reason why the ANC slashed the defence budget after 1994. The ANC was very scared of the same thing happening here – bear in mind that at that point the SANDF was a really powerful machine and very well led.

    • Tim Flack
    • AL

      “What a load of bollocks. What the SANDF needs is not simply more money, more matériel, and more men, but to start using existing resources better. The SANDF needs to slim down and shape up!”

      Yes I will remind you of that drivel when the PRC decides to park one of its nice shiny new aircraft carriers off the SA coast and there is nothing you can do about it.
      Yes use it better but ZA needs a lot more equipment and massively expanded military presence.

    • george orwell

      @AL – you’re not a marketing salesman for the arms industry, are you? ;o)

      War breeds more war, friend. We need more houses, more food, more diplomacy, not more toys for boys.

      At the moment the only hegemonic power parking its nuclear carriers off everyones’ coasts is Uncle $ham, not the PRC…

    • Al

      @george orwell

      No – just someone who has a better grasp of history than you.
      What a feeble argument. However when you do a personal smear,
      you can only be a liberal.
      Look at Switzerland and Sweden who maintained a significant
      military over most of history and maintain a good capability to this day.

      A Roman philospher Renatus said it the best.

      Si vis Pacem para bellum,

    • george orwell

      Al – given your own personal smear here:

      Al: ” I will remind you of that drivel when the PRC decides to park one of its nice shiny new aircraft carriers”

      and using the terms of your own logic, you can only be a liberal, I guess… :o)

      Signed: Not A Liberal Not Even a Neo-Liberal.

    • Al

      @George Orwell – I like WSM, but his argument in this case is drivel. Good person bad argument. But sleazy liberals like yourself can’t differentiate.
      Oh and by the way – I just return the measure given to me.

    • Sushiqueen

      I’d be very interested to hear wsm’s response to Tim Flacks very eloquent rebuttal.

    • WSM

      @ sushiqueen: All the statements made in my column are sourced to reputable material, as per the URLs above. It’s for the reader to make up his or her own mind. What was telling was to be contacted by a senior ANC cadre, seconded to the military, who confided off the record that the situation was ‘far worse’ than I described above.