Where is the enemy?

Dr Jan du Plessis on the genuine story behind the arms debacle.

The arms debacle has remained in the news since the very beginning when the first announcement of the arms purchase was made, especially since irregularities were suspected. As time progressed the spectre of massive corruption and fraud - and the enrichment of specific individuals - has also been exposed by the media and various reports.

Judging the present mood of various groups in society and the massive resistance against the e-toll road system, the climate is ripe for renewed action against the arms debacle. This time it will not only go back to court, but, quite possibly, beyond the court to the streets!

The fundamental issue

Regarding the arms deal, the current public debate has, to a very large extent, been focussed on the arms purchase itself (the number of aircraft, submarines, ships, etc.) and the cost involved. The more fundamental question that positions the whole debate in the right context has never been asked: where is the enemy and what is the nature of the enemy? In defence terms, it is a proper assessment of the enemy that provides the context for the construction and outlay of own armed capabilities. This may seem a common observation, yet it is rarely applied!

Many a government first buys the military hardware and only afterwards looks for an enemy.

The need for a defence capability is directly related to a state's need to uphold its own national sovereignty. The sovereignty of a state reflects its autonomy in decision-making and action; it is an expression of its independence and legitimises its political power. Within this context, a military capability is, therefore, a state's first line of defence of its sovereignty.

Since 1998 the cost of the arms package has accrued from R30 billion to R47,2 billion according to the minister. Some sources claim that the final account could be closer to R70 billion.

The arms component of a defence force is, however, only part of a wider defence system that also includes a certain level of skills and expertise - manpower. The latter is manifested in the command system and the quality of troops. The arms component is therefore not an entity in itself; in functional terms it is an extension of the interaction between command and troops. [A general decides and the troops carry out the order using the available equipment.]

The state of capabilities

It was pointed out in a concept defence overview issued in April 2012 that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) cannot protect the country any more. The defence force has degenerated to such an extent that, even with immediate government intervention, it may take up to 10 years to elevate the defence capability to a "restricted" level of operation.

In its present form the SANDF cannot protect the borders, its monitoring of the air space is severely restricted and information about the maritime situation along the coastline is basically non-existent. The country has a coastline of 3 600 km and nearly a 5 000 km long land border. As far back as 2008 it was reported, "South Africa's borders are a shambles." (iol. March 2008)

The SANDF does not have the expertise and skills to maintain and keep the new equipment operational. One of the new subs has been non-operational in the dock since 2007 and is expected to remain there until 2013. The navy has only enough trained personnel to keep two submarines at sea.

The one component which has consistently deteriorated in the SANDF is the quality of troops. "Military specialists have said (in 2006) - the latest battle readiness statistics of the defence force and specifically the army, which indicated that only 5% of some battle units would be deployable as a result of poor health - is catastrophic."

"There can't be another defence force in the world with so many sick or old soldiers ..." The defence force is developing into a huge welfare problem and cannot reach its primary aims.

The defence force can simply not be regarded as a fighting force in this condition." (news24. January 2006)

The reference to "sick soldiers" is usually the term used for HIV infected soldiers.

Early in 2011 the Army Director Strategy told the National Assembly's Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans "that no humane exit mechanism was available to exit unfit, sick and aged troops, which left the military in a position where it has troops, but cannot deploy them." ( November 2011)

This all comes at a budget allocation of R34 billion for defence by parliament.

Know your enemy

According to the concept defence overview, completed in April 2012, sea-piracy, terrorism and the mass migration of illegal immigrants into the country present some of the most important threats to South Africa.

While parliament was focussed on fighter aircraft, submarines and battle tanks, something else was happening in the region.

SACU revenue down

 "The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) - the world's oldest, comprising Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland - applies a common set of tariffs and disproportionately distributes the revenue to member states, providing a lifeline that ensures the economic survival of Swaziland and Lesotho."

The South African Institute of International Affairs stated that according to "rough estimates," "Swaziland relied on customs revenue for 75 percent of its budget. Lesotho derived 65 percent of government spending from SACU, while in Botswana and Namibia the distributions accounted for about 30 percent of government revenue. SACU's complex framework ensures that Lesotho and Swaziland, and to a lesser extent Namibia and Botswana, share disproportionately in the union's proceeds."

"Most of the customs revenue is produced by South Africa, the continent's largest economy, and about 90 percent of the SACU region's GDP is generated by South Africa." (Irin. Mbabane, 18 August 2010, "However, the global economic crisis saw SACU revenue drop by about 70 percent in 2010 and further drops are expected over the next few years."

Destruction of human capital

 In the period after 2008 when the economic crisis set into the region, a report by the General-Secretary of the United Nations in June 2008 linked the future of the region to a new set of features, with HIV/AIDS among the most important.

"There is, however, not one, single HIV epidemic in Africa. Across the continent HIV shows a great geographical variance. Countries in southern Africa form the epicentre of the global pandemic."

"South Africa counts more than one thousand new infections a day, the highest in the world, while in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe at least one in five adults carries HIV."

"The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a long wave event that unfolds over many decades ... HIV infection develops into illness and death in about ten or eleven years. The virus is hitting the most productive sectors of African economies - prime-aged adults - robbing already besieged economies of scarce skills, children of their parents and the continent of a generation."

"... the time delay between infection, illness and eventually death means that the worst of the pandemic's impact has yet to unfold." (Report of the Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa. An initiative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. June 2008).

By 2012 the "worst of the pandemic's impact" has already been slowly unfolding in the region.

In Swaziland the twin epidemics of AIDS and tuberculosis "has contributed substantially to a halving of life expectancy within two decades - from 60 years in the 1990s to 31 in 2007." (Doctors Without Borders (DWB). Timeslive. December 2010).

Doctors Without Borders (DWB) estimated "that 80 to 90 percent of Lesotho's TB patients are co-infected with HIV. Medical experts are concerned the situation in this mountainous kingdom in southern Africa foreshadows what could be the world's next major health crisis."

"Lesotho has the world's third-highest prevalence of HIV and its fourth-highest TB prevalence. Poverty and violence complicate treatment, and life expectancy is just 36 years." (From U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. March 29, 2010.)

The decline in life expectancy has been a general feature of all the countries in the region. Zimbabwe is already close to 30 years and South Africa is moving to 40 years average.

Who is the enemy?

The SA defence force is perceived as the primary instrument in the hands of Government to protect the country's borders.

It is already apparent that the defence force will not be able to execute the task. South Africa has, for practical purposes, open borders. But how will that affect the enemy?

The "enemy" is usually portrayed as the "illegal immigrant" who finds himself in South Africa without a legal passport. The quick answer to this is always better border control; more troops will solve the problem. Unfortunately, the answer to this problem is much more complicated. The "illegal immigrant" in South Africa is someone who has encountered enormous problems in his own country.

Food still remains an enormous problem. Countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland have been subjected to intense and sporadic droughts and the tribal controlled land system has severely endangered food security. Currently the whole of southern Zimbabwe is again experiencing severe drought with expected food shortages.

There are very few job opportunities in the region. The contributing role of South African mines in the region with contract workers has lost its stabilising effect. Loss of economic income from the SACU union has caused misery.

People are sick. There are not enough clinics and very often they run out of medicine. Most people in the rural areas stay so far from the clinic that they have to walk for hours to get treatment. As a result of HIV-infection, many are too weak to walk long distances. Due to a lack of income, farming appliances such as picks and forks are sold to buy medicine. It becomes a vicious circle of human collapse.

The ordinary "illegal immigrant" is very often a person who is still strong enough to cross the border. His driving force and commitment are not to invade South Africa. He is dirt poor, he is hungry, he is sick with no place to go except South Africa. 

The new enemy - an avalanche of human misery. What is really threatening South Africa's borders is a mounting avalanche of human misery. A defence force cannot solve this problem, even more so when the defence force itself is weakened to the point of collapse.

Searching for an enemy

The Gripen fighters can be applied in the annual ceremonial by-pass on Freedom Day, but apart from this, the most serious air attack against South Africa may only come from a swarm of angry locusts from the Kalahari Desert. When the average life expectancy of the population comes down, it implies that people will not have the human capital - expertise and skills - to deploy a tank or carry a gun!

Ardently seeking a credible enemy, some politicians have redirected the Gripens and submarines as new spearhead against sea piracy. Again, this is not so simple. How a land based fighter aircraft from South Africa is expected to attack a pirate ship in the Mozambique Channel remains to be seen - especially when the pirate ships are employing confiscated fishing vessels in order to blend in with the large number of other fishing vessels. It has already been said that submarines have not been particularly successful off the Somali coastline - they are too slow in comparison with the fast pirate vessels.

Sovereignty in new context

The sovereignty of a country's borders is not only threatened by an armed invasion, although this may be the traditional perception. This sovereignty can be equally threatened by every HIV-infected person crossing the border, and every foot-and-mouth disease infected buffalo crossing the Limpopo River.

South Africa has prepared for a military threat that does not really exist. The genuine threat and impact of human and animal diseases have been largely ignored and mismanaged.

The present discussion of the role of the defence force, and shopping list of armaments, really create the impression that it was designed within the context of Cold War thinking on military preparedness - which ended in 1990. Apart from the US intervention in the Middle East, the whole idea of war between countries has been replaced by a new reality of conflict inside a country. The situation in Libya and Syria proved beyond any doubt that no present day government can apply fighter aircraft and tanks against its own population any longer. World opinion, and the UN, just does not tolerate it.

The real threat to South Africa in the region can be contracted in the following:

Income from the SACU has been decreasing and will continue to do so for a long time;

The average life expectancy of the population is on the decline and is expected to continue doing so for an even longer time. A demographic turn-around may take generations.

This is accompanied by a continuing increase in arms spending, with no functional defence force in place.

The country will have to rethink its strategic (long-term) position in the region. The current approach reflects Cold War thinking.

A fundamental rethinking will be almost impossible, given the current political leadership of the SANDF.


This is an edited extract from the Intersearch Management Briefing for May 2012. Dr Jan du Plessis can be contacted at [email protected] 


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