Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, soldier man

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on what's behind the SANDF's move into the bakery business


It’s the latest South African iteration of those well-known lines from the Bible: “They shall beat their swords into spatulas, and their spears into tester needles…” 

The South African National Defence Force has found an innovative solution to its crippling lack of funding. It has started a chain of bakeries “to create self-sustainment”. 

The idea is that the bakeries — employing military veterans, the dependants of soldier families, and people with disabilities — will contribute to feeding the soldiers and “overcoming budget difficulties”. It adds new meaning to the old quip about being short of dough.

The bakeries will also sell their cakes, pastries and loaves at local markets, “to the benefit of disadvantaged communities”. Last week, SANDF (Pty) Ltd opened its sixth franchise at the Potchefstroom base. 

All the details are not known. The SANDF, in response to an avalanche of jokes and jeers — lots of bad puns about “buns not guns”, “cake-tin soldiers” and “cake love, not war” — has sulkily refused to answer important media questions about the specifics. So, as yet, we don’t know whether the bakeries will be serving gluten-free or catering kiddies’ birthday parties.

But, I have no doubt, soon there will be not an SANDF forward base anywhere between Kinshasa in the Congo to Pemba in Mozambique, which doesn’t boast a Bread Basket knock-off. Wherever the SANDF military is, there will be a new contender — let’s call it Bombes Away — raking in the locals’ cash from the sale of baguettes, croissants, multi-layered gateaux and delicious pain au chocolat

Or, more likely, vetkoek, koeksisters, rusks and pot bread. This is how to spread a South African culinary culture: military conquest, not SA Masterchef.

The Democratic Alliance, despite always gaaning aan over the lack of innovation and awareness of market forces in government departments and state-owned entities, has reacted with a singular lack of enthusiasm to the bakeries. 

The SANDF’s laudable entrepreneurship drew DA condemnation. Kobus Marais, the Shadow Minister of Defence, has called on the government to investigate the potentially irregular and wasteful expenditure of what it calls a “bizarre” move.

“While the DA acknowledges the fact that the cash-strapped SANDF is confronted with a number of operational challenges, the opening of bakeries is not the solution. This once again highlights the lack of strategic thinking and foresight within the SANDF’s leadership.”

That’s all very well, but what is the beleaguered Defence Minister Thandi Modise supposed to do? It’s a military truism, attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great, that “an army marches on its stomach”.

Unlike the indecent number of obese cops that one sees daily on the streets, the SANDF soldiers are a lean and hungry crew. Last week, Parliament heard that soldiers sometimes have to go hungry or buy their own food, because of provisioning failures.

These include, according to the Defence Force Service Commission, incorrect quantities of food supplies, as well as sub-standard and expired products. In some cases, food was withheld from troops and given to people visiting the military bases.

The South African National Defence Union says staff are demoralised and increasingly hamstrung by equipment shortfalls. “It has become quite difficult for a member to even get a new uniform,” a union spokesperson told News24.

Confirming this, Marais tells me that on a parliamentary SANDF oversight visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most frequent complaints he heard was about the poor quality of our men’s uniforms and boots, which quickly deteriorate in field conditions. Similarly, the cheap fabric used in their bivouac tents often left them soaked and cold. 

To start with, there simply isn’t the budget. Over decades, the SANDF’s responsibilities have escalated steadily. Not only are there peacekeeping deployments all around the continent, but the military is having to step in to bail out the useless SA Police Service on the border, against poachers and migrants, as well as assisting police operations to enforce Covid lockdowns and quell insurgencies in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Yet the budget keeps shrinking. The 2020/21 budget reduced medium-term Defence spending by R15.4bn. 

Consequently, SANDF has an air force that can only rarely afford to fly and a navy that only occasionally can afford to sail. 

The military’s estimate is that its budget is less than half of what it needs and it describes itself as being in “a critical state of decline”. Africa Defence Review editor Darren Olivier writes that the budget crisis is so bad that “it may cause the previously unthinkable — personnel going unpaid and [more] equipment being mothballed”.

No wonder the SANDF has to resort to cake sales and bring-and-bake market days. Next come the jumble sales and appeals on GoFundMe — “Hi guys, we’re looking for US$10bn to pay 73,000 soldiers and invade a small neighbouring country. All contributions, much appreciated.”

Of course, bakeries are not the SANDF’s first tilt at private enterprise. It was quick to seize on the entrepreneurial opportunities kicked loose in the pharmaceutical sector by the outbreak of the Covid pandemic last year. 

At a bargain-basement cost of only R215m, it secured from Cuba 970,000 vials of Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B, touted by its old revolutionary allies as a wonder cure for the coronavirus. Admittedly, there were some unexpected downsides to the deal.

First, the landed price of R221.65 per dose was substantially higher than the approximate US$7 a dose that South Africa paid to access big-name brands, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. But hey, miracle cures — as snake oil salesman Dr Oz will tell you — is a niche product. “The more they pay, the more they heal”, is the slogan.

Second, international consensus guidelines for the treatment of Covid-19 recommended against the use of Interferons. The research has supposedly shown no benefit, although everyone knows that the US-dominated Big Pharma’s jealousy of plucky little socialist Cuba is behind the findings.

Anyway, the upshot was that the comradely joint venture failed. The Defence minister has since warned her generals that “heads will roll”. The Hawks have made gargling noises about imminent arrests. And, this week, the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority announced that if it turned out that the SANDF had not returned the drugs to Cuba as ordered, SAHPRA would confiscate the consignment and destroy it.

In all, it chalks up as a corporate fail for the SANDF. And, as with any big corporation when the business stumbles, it signals that it’s time for a cleanout of the top executives.

Marais says that while there are many “fantastic” leaders in the SANDF, there is also a segment that “takes it cue from the worst kinds of arrogance and entitlement prevalent at the top of the ANC”. These people believe, says Marais, that they are “untouchable and certainly not accountable to Parliament”.

Coincidentally, Marais also mentions that he has just submitted a parliamentary question on the upgrading of the newly named Albertina Sisulu Officers Mess at the SANDF’s Thaba Tshwane headquarters. The spending on ensuring the officers’ caviar-and-malt-whisky levels of comfort is whispered to have been a couple of hundred million rands.

And the other ranks? Well, we’ll let them eat glazed doughnuts. 

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