Defence Force Chief Rattles His Sabre
|Publication||Mail & Guardian|
South Africa's Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota has vehemently denied reports that the SA National Defence Force was not ready to defend the country.
"I want to start by saying the SANDF is perfectly placed to fulfil its obligations to the country. On the basis of risk analysis I've got no reason to believe the SANDF would fail or be unable to defend the country," he says.
Recent media reports had created an impression of a sickly, overweight, over-generalled defence force unable to fulfil its constitutional obligations.
The reports also said the SANDF's salary and acquisitions bills had left too little money in the budget to deploy the SANDF in support of the police or regional obligations, or for training or maintenance of its equipment.
However Lekota said: "I remain satisfied that with what is available there is nothing we cannot deal with."
He rubbished reports that the HIV/Aids infection rate in the military was running at 60%, saying it was below 23%.
"I am giving this to you as a factual figure. It is a ridiculous and dangerous statement that almost 60% of the SANDF has HIV."
Lekota also rejected reports that the army only had four tanks and eight armoured cars operational.
The truth was that the military's short term strategy only required 30 tanks in the regular force and a squadron of Rooikat cars - a total of 18 armoured cars.
The remainder, out of a total of 168 and 242 respectively, were in store and were meant for issue to reserve units on their mobilisation.
That strategy placed the emphasis on "supporting the people" by assisting the police and taking a lead in disaster relief, followed by fulfilling the country's regional responsibilities.
Defending South Africa's territorial integrity came in third - as no-one was currently threatening that.
Turning to the armed forces' 208 generals and admirals, he said the problem was being addressed and steps were being taken to reduce the number.
"It is not an easy task," he said. Immediately rightsizing the force would absorb its entire budget (R18,4-billion) in retrenchment packages.
Addressing Parliament's concern over the reduction of the SANDF's strength to below the 76 000 authorised by it, Lekota said it was not a question of numbers only but of age and fitness.
The average infantryman, at 31, was getting too old for the job. He said about 7 700 would shortly be remustered to the police to serve in a gendarmerie role.
Asked why the SANDF was withdrawing from the country's borders - in particular the Lesotho frontier where stocktheft was rife, the minister said the armed forces was obligated to support the police in maintaining security, particularly where the latter was not equal to the task.
"If the police can't cope they'll tell us."
No one in the police had asked the SANDF to return to that border, he said.
"It should not be a daily thing. In five years' time there should be no reason to support the police except in an emergency."
Queried whether the police had not tired of asking and knew the SANDF had no money to support them, he said: "We have never told the police we are not available. There is not one instance where this has happened."
The same applied to regional deployments.
"When we went to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) we approached Cabinet for R100-million to buy the necessary equipment to allow us to deploy."
This was immediately granted, as were funds to deploy a battalion of 700 to Burundi.
Lekota also made it clear he considered the reports not only inaccurate but also ill-timed - it coincided with the launch of the African Union in Durban.
"I find it interesting and peculiar that people and parties that have been most vocal in attacking defence spending are the ones complaining today that we are not spending enough to provide equipment and training.
"They had the intention to undermine national defence at a time South Africa was receiving Heads of State... through a stream of articles. They did not succeed. We will not allow this."
Firm action would be taken against those who alarmed the people and embarrassed South Africa's standing, he said.
His representative, Sam Mkhwanazi, afterwards added that claims that training had come to a virtual halt in the organisation was nonsense.
"No training course and no exercise has ever been cancelled," he stated emphatically.
When asked whether that was true for the reserves as well, he conceded it was not, adding he was speaking about the regular component only.
Institute for Security Studies analyst Henri Boshoff, who attended the briefing, disagreed with Lekota's sentiments.
Boshoff recently left the force and a post in the Joint Operations division, the headquarters that coordinates SANDF deployments.
"The SANDF is currently enduring its most trying time ever," he told Sapa.
Democratic Alliance defence representative Hendrik Schmidt said he and his colleagues stood by their media statements.
"Our point of departure is a recent interview with SANDF chief General Siphiwe Nyanda in the Financial Mail and the documents the defence force gave us at Saldanha during a Reserve Force indaba there last month.
"We can't have a 60 000 strong defence force and only have a 3 000 strong fighting force. What are the other 57 000 doing?"
Asked to comment on the minister's threat, he said it was for Lekota and the SANDF to explain, not for critics to prove, the military's parlous state.
"It is not us who are disloyal but him in not providing us a defence force."
He also shrugged off Mkhwanazi's claim that neither Lekota's legal advisor nor defence portfolio committee chairwoman Thandi Modise heard anyone at the indaba mention that only four tanks and eight armoured cars were operational.
Schmidt and New National Party defence representative Adriaan Blaas had both attended the event and independently told the media that a senior officer had confirmed this to a shocked committee.
The MP said the comment was made during a committee session and was heard by other MPs and defence officials, whom he was ready to identify.
He could also not see why the officer would deliberately misinform MPs.
Meanwhile more reports reflecting poorly on budget priorities within the Department of Defence (DoD) have surfaced.
The size of the SANDF's operational deployment budget for a whole year was less than the R130-million reportedly spent on security at last week's AU launch in Durban.
And, despite assurances to the minister and the country contrary that the SANDF was ready to answer any call, 5 SA Infantry Battalion, when recently asked to rush an infantry company (about 100-150 soldiers) to the city to help clean up after striking municipal workers, was apparently unable to respond for a lack of serviceable transport as well as an absence of sufficient officers and sergeants to command the contingent.
Defence commentators were also sceptical of the Army's ability to crew the tanks and armoured cars, saying many would have to be drawn from the ranks of instructors and headquarters staff while the reserve regiments slated to crew the vehicles existed in name only. The same could be said of the country's artillery, air defence and engineering arms.
"The majority of their equipment is in storage for issue to reserve units that only exist in name, where the few old boys who still hang around the pub haven't had a medical examination in at least ten years, haven't taken part in a field exercise since 1996, and have routinely had training courses cancelled for the same period," said one who did not wish to be identified.
With acknowledgements to Leon Engelbrecht and Mail & Guardian.