Nene Fails to Put His Money Where Zuma's Mouth Is

In his belt-tightening medium-term budget policy statement on 22 October 2014, Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, failed to provide the considerably increased finances that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) would require to tackle the enhanced peace-making role that President Jacob Zuma envisages for it.

Nene’s gloomy - but realistic - mini budget raised searching questions, in particular about the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC). This is the clumsy name for what is supposed to be an African Union (AU) initiative to establish agile, rapid-response forces, formed from volunteer nations to tackle security crises across the continent.

ACIRC is very much President Jacob Zuma’s pet project. It was inspired by the AU’s lack of progress in establishing its formal African Standby Force, which has, in the meantime, compelled the continent to rely on outside forces - particularly France - to come to the rescue in places like Mali and the Central African Republic. To Zuma in particular, this was tantamount to opening the door to neo-colonial meddling in Africa.

Zuma hosted the first ACIRC summit in Pretoria a year ago. He also expended substantial political capital in getting the initiative adopted by the AU at its summit in January this year (2014). This was against the opposition of Nigeria, in particular, which feared that ACIRC was giving Pretoria too much power.

When the Defence Review Committee discussed its review with him before publishing it earlier this year, it was apparently Zuma who told it to scale up its ambition. The review, adopted by cabinet in March 2014, concluded that the Defence Force is in a critical state of decline - both in its equipment and in the abilities of its personnel, of who there were far too many, consuming some 52 percent of the R43 billion budget. The review authors set down five milestones to be reached, depending on the level of ambition that the government was prepared to invest in the rejuvenation of the force.

Milestone 1 was to immediately arrest the critical decline in critical capabilities; Milestone 2, rebalancing and reorganising the Defence Force as the foundation for future growth; Milestone 3, creating a sustainable Defence Force that can meet its current ordered commitments; Milestone 4, enhancing its capacity ‘to respond to nascent challenges in the strategic environment’ and Milestone 5, enabling it to fight a war to defend South Africa against attack.

Apparently the committee itself was ready to settle for Milestone 3, but Zuma - not surprisingly perhaps, urged it to go higher and it ended up recommending Milestone 4, which in effect meant beefing up the SANDF to play the role of peacemaker on the continent.

The committee calculated that the Defence Force budget would have to nearly double as a ratio of gross domestic product (GDP), from its current 1.1 percent to two percent (the global norm) to achieve Milestone 4.

Among the important additional capital costs would be for the Defence Force to acquire new airlift capacity, as its existing fleet of transport aircraft is too old or too small. This huge deficiency was fatally exposed in the Central African Republic in March 2013, when the Defence Force had to charter a private aircraft to reinforce its embattled troops on the ground, but the charter company decided it was too dangerous to fly in.

As Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies wrote in June 2014 in a policy brief titled ‘The 2014 South African Defence Review: Rebuilding After Years of Abuse, Neglect and Decay’ that fulfilling the review’s recommendations would require the finance minister to find an additional R11.7 billion in the 2014/15 financial year and R11.2 billion the year thereafter for defence.

But there was no sign of that in Nene’s medium-term budget policy statement or in the accompanying adjusted estimates of expenditure. ACIRC received a passing mention as the estimates said the target for reserve force ‘person days’ would be increased to 2 871 852, due to the increased requirement of forces for ACIRC and border safeguarding.

But there was no money. ‘There is no additional allocation for the deployment of the defence force as part of the ACIRC in the mini budget for 2014,’ David Maynier, the defence spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance says: ‘With the Defence Force facing cuts of more than R700 million in this financial year, the deployment is unlikely to be funded from within the existing defence budget.

‘This means that an additional allocation will be required if the Defence Force has to deploy as part of the ACIRC, which itself is very unlikely. Our peace support operations ambitions are clearly not aligned with our peace support capacity.’

Does this then mean the end of South Africa’s leadership role - or any role for that matter - in ACIRC and the like? As Cilliers points out in his policy brief, the Defence Force has options, if it chooses to take them.

The one would be to make substantial savings in other areas, to free up money. The more obvious one would be to slash the bloated staff complement, many of who are not fit for purpose. Another would simply be to separate the veterans’ administration from the Defence Force and move it to Social Welfare, where it perhaps more logically belongs.

However, political experts believe that staff cuts are probably out of the question. As one observed, African National Congress (ANC) politicians are mostly inclined to view the SANDF as first and foremost an employer, and only secondly, as a defender of the country’s sovereignty or of the continent’s peaceful development.

Another implicit cost-cutting option raised in the Defence Review was to ‘pursue the Defence Strategic Trajectory with the assistance of either a strategic partner or a number of strategic partners,’ rather than ‘implementing the Defence Strategic Trajectory independently.’ Cilliers pointed out that ‘on 17 March 2014, the cabinet elected in favour of the independent option, having apparently realised the challenges that the SANDF would face in relying on either Western, Chinese or Russian partners in the pursuit of the country’s regional stability ambitions.’

Nonetheless, the government might need to relook that option in the obvious absence of independent financing to realise its large continent ambitions. It was revealing that at the United States-Africa Leaders summit, which the United States (US) President, Barack Obama, hosted in Washington in August 2014, the US offered support, in training and logistics, for establishing an ACIRC headquarters capability. Was that a sign of things to come?

- Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa. This article first appeared in the ISS Today.

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