Africa Defense Forum
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SANDF Feels Pinch as Funding Affects Readiness


South Africa drew international criticism for its recent military exercises with China and Russia, but there was no shortage of critics at home who argued that the drills were too costly and used funds needed elsewhere.

The optics of collaborating with Russia already were cause for condemnation on the one-year anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine.

But the February joint military exercises reportedly cost about $11.8 million, a number that one politician used while noting that some members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had to pay their own bus fare to get to Richards Bay and others slept in dilapidated tents.

Pieter Groenewald, an opposition leader, said the drills were meant “to create the impression South Africa’s National Defence Force is ready and able.”

He also claimed in a statement that only four of 11 locally made Rooivalk combat support helicopters and two Gripen fighter jets were operational while the Navy had only the frigate SAS Mendi participating in marine drills.

SANDF still is among the most powerful militaries in Africa, but severe budget cuts over the years have had far-reaching effects on recruitment, training, readiness and equipment maintenance.

A recent survey of 8,700 service members showed SANDF’s challenges are affecting morale, especially with regard to the availability and quality of equipment.

“The availability of capabilities and defense platforms represents a key pillar on functionality of the SANDF, and the fact that these two critical components are lacking, is an issue of serious concern for the committee,” Cyril Xaba, chairman of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, said in a statement.

Xaba also fielded complaints about pilots not logging enough flight hours to keep their licenses current.

South Africa has been aware of its military’s financial crisis for nearly 10 years, but many economic challenges have meant that little has been done to address SANDF issues despite the pleas of government officials and military leaders.

In addressing Parliament last year, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise said the SANDF is spread thin.

“There can be no doubt that there is a widening dichotomy between that which the SANDF is expected to achieve and the resources that are provided to achieve these expectations,” she said.

“Our inability to maintain, repair and overhaul our aging fleets of combat equipment simply adds to our already dire block — obsolescence of our prime mission equipment. We have a bloated facilities footprint, and we also have the urgent need to rejuvenate the SANDF with young and healthy Soldiers.”

Recruitment woes, rank stagnation and rank inflation — in which the senior ranks are disproportionate to the numbers in lower ranks — are among the military’s greatest personnel issues.

Salaries are SANDF’s biggest expenditure, accounting for 62.6% of its $7.9 billion budget for 2022-23.

“The question that must worry us is how, within current budgetary constraints, do we ensure rejuvenation of skills in the SANDF and improve morale of our Soldiers?” Xaba asked.

In November 2022, Xaba warned that SANDF’s funding crisis “could spell disaster for the safety and security of the country.”

Deteriorating vehicles, buildings and other infrastructure have forced mechanics and engineers to occasionally repurpose other assets in order to maintain operations.

Ministers in the portfolio committee have approached the treasury repeatedly for more funding.

In presenting to the portfolio committee in October 2022, the Department of Defence said consistent annual budget cuts made it unable to meet its stated goal to “arrest the decline” of South Africa’s military.

South Africa’s importance as a leader in regional and continental security is beyond question, experts say, which is why there are calls for more investment in its military.

Despite the issues and the rising din of criticism leading up to the controversial joint exercises with Russia and China, SANDF Chief of Staff Gen. Rudzani Maphwanya tried to reassure South Africans not to fear for their safety or fret over the forces’ financial woes.

“The army’s there, and it’s an army for the people of South Africa,” he said during a media briefing. “We feel the pinch, but it’s for good use.”

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