The SANW after three decades


In April 2024, the South African National Army (SANW) will celebrate its 30th anniversary. However, the recent death of two SANW members due to a mortar bomb in the east of the DRC has put the spotlight anew on the state of the SANW and the way in which their functioning has changed over the past 30 years. – Ed.

By prof. Theo Neethling

In April 2024, the South African National Army (SANW) will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The question is: where does the SAND find itself after three decades under ANC management and what are the major issues in the functioning of South Africa’s military as a policy instrument of the government of the day? In this connection, I would like to highlight five matters in particular.

  1. Foreign policy instrument

South Africa’s post-1994 policy towards Africa brought new opportunities for the use of the military as a foreign policy instrument. In fact, with the start of the Mbeki era, the SANS’s involvement in peace operations in the region became an outstanding feature of South Africa’s foreign policy on the African continent. There are several examples that stand out, including the SANS involvement in the conflicts in Lesotho (1998), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (1999), Burundi (2003), and later in Sudan (2008) and more recently Mozambique (2021), as well as several previous smaller foreign deployments.

  1. Defense review

Although the South African government after 1994 strongly linked its foreign policy in Africa to the promotion of peace and development in African states, its official defense policy continued to link the SANS primarily to the safeguarding and defense of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity . All this was detailed in the South African Defense Review of 1998 and also explains why the purchase of new Gripen fighter jets, submarines and frigates was on the SANS’ shopping list in the late 1990s.

The Defense Review of 1998 was the product of a process of policy development in the Department of Defense where it was finally concluded that the SANS’s force design had to be directed at its “primary purpose”, namely defence, and that other or so-called secondary functions – including operations in the field of peace and security – through its so-called collateral utility (“collateral utility”) had to be performed. However, this premise became extremely problematic over time as time went on and political decisions were made about the application of the SANW. After all, since 1998 the SANDS has played an increasingly prominent role as an instrument in South Africa’s foreign policy and finally it has become clearer that the secondary function of peace operations in conflict-affected African states has in fact become the SANDS’s primary function or main focus.

  1. Budget constraints

Budget constraints have posed increasingly greater challenges to the SANDS, especially since 2000. This was very clear from the (second) South African Defense Review of 2015 which made it clear that at that stage South Africa had less than 1.2% of the country s gross domestic product (GDP) spent on defence. In fact, between 1995 and 1998, the defense budget decreased and was cut by 11.1%.

According to the 2015 Defense Review, the SANS was effectively 24% underfunded in terms of its size and responsibilities. The trend of lower military spending has since continued as recent statistics show that spending in 2022/23 was 8.4% lower than in 2021 and 21% lower than in 2013. Obviously, this is related to the country’s struggling economy and low growth which puts severe pressure on state finances and necessitates lower state spending.

  1. High-tech equipment

Fourth, and linked to the previous points, the high-tech equipment that has been largely purchased since the end of the 1990s for the so-called primary function has finally become problematic as far as serviceability and functionality are concerned.

In a shocking revelation towards the end of 2023, the Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise, admitted a dire state of affairs within the South African Air Force. She reported that a staggering 85% of the air force’s aircraft were out of action. Among the high-tech equipment purchased since the late 1990s, two of the 26 Gripen fighters and three of the 24 Hawk aircraft were available for service. In fact, overall, more than half of the air force’s aircraft – a staggering 53% – were not serviceable. The funding crisis is currently so severe that some military analysts are proposing the unthinkable, namely to downsize the once proud air force to a mere air wing.

The South African Navy is not in a better position than the air force. Already in 2013, three of the navy’s frigates, which together with the submarines were part of the arms purchases of the 1990s, were in one way or another out of action or dysfunctional, while a fourth was stripped for spare parts. All the frigates are in urgent need of repairs and their weapons systems need to be replaced or repaired. The three submarines also came with a limited number of spare parts, as did the frigates. Scheduled and regular maintenance on the submarines in particular is critical. One of the submarines has already been stripped for parts and sometimes not a single submarine is serviceable.

As already mentioned, the focus of the SANS after 1994 – especially that of the SA Army – increasingly shifted to operations in the field of peace and security in Africa. In November 2023, South Africa was the fifth largest troop-contributing nation in the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation in the eastern DRC and currently the SANDS plays a key role in the Southern African Development Community’s operation against bloodthirsty Islamic militants in northern Mozambique. These are important operations, but military experts often argue that our soldiers in the field often do not receive good logistical support.

  1. Internal focus

Protection of our long border lines and support for the South African Police Service (SAPS) in internal operations has become increasingly important in the SANS’s tasks and responsibilities and can now even be considered one of its primary functions. What is clear, however, is that the SANS is far too often used as a tool to deal with South Africa’s internal security problems.

Two issues are increasingly having an impact on the growing footprint of the SANDF in South Africa’s domestic security landscape: firstly, a declining ability of the SAPS to properly police the country’s interior and secondly, a mindset in government circles that the SANDF’s focus is increasingly targeting domestic political challenges. The SANW is in fact considered a handy tool to assist the SAPS in policing roles and functions, when necessary, such as on the Cape Flats. The SANW’s non-military tasks are wide-ranging and range from action against zama-zamas to securing Eskom power stations and even involved cleaning up the Vaal River.

  1. In closing

In the past three decades, there has been a clear mismatch between what has been expected of the SANS at a political level for years on the one hand, and its budget and capabilities on the other. The overall challenge for the SANW is not to forget that conventional defense is still central to the foundation for its existence, but to also remain ready for political calls to assist with peace operations in the region or the continent as a whole.

In addition, the SANW often has to support the SAPS in the delivery of security services in a crime-ridden and fragile South African society and secure national borders. It is demanding and everything has to be carried out with more or less 1% of the country’s GDP.

Therefore it is not surprising that the SANW is often described as underfunded and institutionally overstretched, and in fact has been in a critical state of continuous decline for some time.

  • Theo Neethling is attached to the department of political studies and government at the University of the Free State.