Is There a National Consensus on Defence?
A national consensus about defence is a factor the military identify as a measure of their success -- and defence commentators are asking if such a consensus still exists.
Their fears were aroused last week when Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota told Parliament the country's two essential defence policy documents would be revised, apparently without public input.
The two documents -- the Defence White Paper (DWP) and Defence Review (DR) -- were drawn up and published in 1996 and 1998 respectively after lengthy public consultations.
It is also not clear if the revised documents will be published.
The military's plan to revitalise its staff by the end of this decade, dubbed "HR2010", although adopted by Cabinet well over a year ago and having the date June 2002 on its cover, has still not been made public.
Retired air force major general and Institute for Security Studies (ISS) analyst Len le Roux said between 1994 and 1998 there was active engagement between the Department of Defence (DoD) and civil society.
The DWP and DR were drafted in this period. Afterwards, that engagement tapered off.
"The debate is not closed but it is now more difficult to engage. We have moved away from the open debate we used to have," le Roux said.
As an example he cited President Thabo Mbeki's decision to abolish the commando system.
"The decision was in direct contradiction with the DR. It appears not even Parliament was consulted before the time."
The decision was simply announced to Parliament as an accomplished fact in February last year.
Le Roux was hopeful the DoD would ask for public participation in the review process. He expressed concern that they had not done so yet.
"There have been no proactive moves to date," he said.
The reviewed documents will eventually go before Parliament, but the discussion will then be about a document already on the table.
There seemed to be no attempt to discuss policy before writing it, le Roux lamented.
A complete consensus was probably unattainable, but there was less of that consensus in 2004 than in 1998/99.
"I attribute that to an assumption within the department that once there was a consensus, it would endure. There seemed to be no realisation that as things changed, one needed to keep going back to the public to maintain and renew that consensus."
Margy Keegan of Gunfree SA agreed that the general level of debate about defence had subsided. However, she was confident sufficient civil society groups -- such as the ISS -- remained in the field.
She was adamant that the review of the DWP and DR had to be broad-based.
"It should be subject to a public process. This has proved very effective in the past," Keegan said.
Democratic Alliance defence spokesman Rafeek Shah said there had to be transparency in all processes, or there could be no accountability.
"The ANC is failing to make a distinction between the state and the party. So they have taken to consulting themselves and argue that since they represent the people the people have been consulted. The opposition doesn't count, they lost the election. So an 'internal process', as Lekota called it, is legitimate in their eyes," Shah said.
"It is proper that the result be put before Parliament, but it will probably just be for rubber-stamping," Shah said.
The MP and Muslim cleric said the revised DWP and DR would have a direct impact on the economy because it could affect the share of GDP spent on defence, and might argue that the country needs more arms acquisitions.
"But it won't say that what we have just bought is not adequate for what we are doing -- namely peacekeeping," Shah added.
Defence industrialist Richard Young agreed that most of the arms bought in the multi-billion rand arms deal or strategic defence package (SDP) were unsuitable for peacekeeping.
His analysis suggested that many of the purchases were also not justified by the existing DR -- despite government's insistence that they were.
As a result he could not see any point in updating the DWP and DR or for calling for a public debate.
"What's the use of a fancy review process with public participation if they are just going to do what they want to anyway?"
He said the prime mover behind the SDP was then trade and industry minister Alec Erwin who in 1999 needed to prove himself in his portfolio.
"Erwin was not interested in the defence review. Requirements or costs made no difference to him. He wanted to kick start the economy and saw the offsets to be gained from the SDP as the way to do it.
"That's how the arms deal was allowed to become such a big thing by (former president Nelson) Mandela and Mbeki," said Young, the chief executive of CCII, a defence information technology company.
Asked what could be done to improve the process he said most of the mechanisms required were already in place.
The experience of the 20 years to 1999 was that the military had to set proper requirements and specify a budget and then let Armscor, the DoD acquisition agency, do the rest.
Politicians, in the executive and in Parliament, had to monitor, not meddle.
MPs had to overcome their ignorance on the subject and their parties had an obligation to see that they were trained.
"Political parties have to groom people for the job. Seminars are needed to train MPs... They need good people, including people with military experience....Oversight committees seldom engage in incisive questioning, usually it is the opposite," Young concluded.
With acknowledgements to Leon Engelbrecht and Sapa.