SANDF Firing on 50% Power
Pretoria - A total of 53% of the defence force's 60 000 soldiers cannot be operationally deployed because they are medically unfit.
Although their illnesses are not known, one of the problems is the age of riflemen and privates. The worldwide average age of troops is about 22, but in South Africa they are between 32 and 36.
That means the defence force has only one battalion (about 1 300 soldiers) to deploy at a time, most of whom are deployed in peace operations in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
These statistics have been released at an indaba of the defence force and the portfolio committee on defence.
Democratic Alliance intelligence spokesperson Philip Schalkwyk summarises the predicament by saying equipment and personnel in the defence force are in a critical state.
"There is a critical need to analyse the efficiency of the defence force to determine whether it can still be regarded as a reliable force in southern Africa.
"There are enormous problems which can be rectified only with a proper budget, the prioritising of funds, well-planned purchasing, maintenance of equipment, and purposeful training."
Lacking political will
Schalkwyk believes presentations at the indaba show that a lack of funds is not the main cause of these problems, but that the political will to make sometimes-unpopular decisions, is lacking.
The army is supposed to make 26 infantry companies available for border protection. Due to insufficient funds, the number was reduced to 19. In reality, only nine companies are available.
This downscaling was planned without taking into account the food shortages in neighbouring countries and the escalating stock theft on the Lesotho border. These new developments could increase cross-border crime and the influx of illegal immigrants, in which case nine companies would be inadequate.
The defence force says only 30 of the army's more than 150 Olifant tanks are operational. The 2002/03 budget allows funds to use only 18 of more than 240 Rooikat armoured cars.
The remaining tanks and Rooikats are being stored at low cost. The defence force says these vehicles can be applied on a skeleton basis because there is no conventional threat at the moment.
Reserve force in trouble
Fund shortages is also whittling away at the reserve force, which is to be deployed in emergency situations. Schalkwyk believes the reserve force could even completely disappear by next year.
Some of these units have to survive on less than R3 000 a month, not including the costs of commandos responsible for area and border defence.
The reserve force last had field training in 1996. The Witwatersrand Rifles unit has no boots and no ammunition for training.
It was recommended at the indaba that Defence Minister Mosioua Lekota should "immediately implement corrective measures to prevent further deterioration".
Soldiers who are unfit should, for example, be dismissed. Young and healthy soldiers should form the core of the defence force. The fighting power of the defence force should be decreased to 60 000 (50 000 soldiers and 10 000 civilians).
Portfolio committee chairperson Thandi Modise says Lekota has three months to submit a plan to solve especially the reserve force's problems.
With acknowledgements to Erika Gibson and Beeld.