Publication: Sunday Independent Issued: Date: 2002-07-14 Reporter: Editor:

Nearly Half of SA Army Not Fit for Combat


Publication  Sunday Independent
Date 2002-07-14
Reporter Jean Le May
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More than half of South Africa's 76 000 soldiers are medically unfit and the SANDF is in a "serious crisis", according to a briefing by the department of defence. And several independent reports indicate that up to 60 percent of soldiers could be HIV-positive.

The parliamentary portfolio committee on defence was given this shocking assessment at a recent two-day briefing at Saldanha military base. The army, navy and air force presented documents and reservists attended too. A brief by the Centre for Conflict Resolution was also discussed.

Mosioua Lekota, the defence minister, was to take "immediate remedial action to stop further deterioration". Committee chairperson Thandi Modise said Lekota had to present a plan within three months.

The committee heard that:

Of its 76 000 troops, the SANDF could deploy only one operational brigade of 3 000.

It was "impossible" to deploy 19 regular army companies and 23 reserve platoons because of a lack of funds.

Training had virtually come to a halt.

Almost all courses had stopped, leading to boredom and demoralisation.

Army reservists had not been deployed on training exercises for nearly four years, and morale was "at rock bottom".

Equipment was in a deplorable state, with only four out of 168 Olifant tanks and eight of 242 Rooikat armoured cars operational.

Lack of funds had caused a shortage of fuel. In the air force, funds were allocated for only 2 400 flying hours instead of the 7 200 requested, and pilots were resigning in droves. "The air force usually runs out of aviation fuel every September," said a member of the portfolio committee.

Reduction of the armed forces from 104 000 in 1994 to the present 76 000 had involved massive cash payouts. This had turned the defence force into "an armed welfare department", said Hendrik Schmidt, a DA portfolio committee member.

The defence force was seriously top-heavy, with a ratio of one general for every 293 men, compared with a general for every 2 000 men in the United States army.

More than 52 percent of the defence force budget was spent on personnel costs and only 0,5 percent on new equipment.

Moreover, Aids appears to be a major problem in the defence force. The army has estimated that the incidence of HIV is 17 to 23 percent, but commentators say there is no reliable figure because soldiers are tested only when operationally deployed.

The portfolio committee was told that seven out of every 10 deaths in the armed forces were Aids-related.

And a medical specialist at one of the country's military hospitals said six out of every 10 soldiers tested HIV-positive after being admitted to hospital.

The doctor, who declined to be named, said that he found the allegation that 60 percent of soldiers were HIV-positive was "feasible".

Philip van Schalkwyk, the Democratic Alliance (DA) spokesperson on intelligence and military veterans and a former army brigadier-general, said, "The army is not giving us the real situation."

He said from his experience, he would not be surprised if the incidence of HIV-positive soldiers was as high as 60 percent.

The department did not say why so many soldiers were medically unfit and army officials declined to elaborate. The only explanation offered to the portfolio committee was that many of the riflemen and infantrymen were between 32 and 36 which was, by army standards, regarded as too old for deployment on active service.

Roy Jankielsohn, the DA spokesperson on defence and a member of the portfolio committee, said the usual age of a foot soldier was between 18 to 22 but the army had stopped recruiting in 1994 when the liberation armies were integrated with the former defence force.

With acknowledgements to Jean Le May and Sunday Independent.