Mini-Symposium on SANDFs Force Design & Related Matters; with Deputy Minister


03 September 2020
Chairperson: Mr V Xaba (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Joint Standing Committee on Defence, (NA and NCOP) 03 Sep 2020

The Joint Standing Committee on Defence concluded an informative virtual mini-symposium on the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) design and related matters. The Committee was unanimous on the need for continuing the discourse on the kind of defence force that South Africa wanted and required in relation to funding that was sufficient to support such a force. The Committee noted that this dialogue had been important in order to identify relevant issues in its oversight work on the SANDF, particularly with regard to the fiscal constraints under which the SANDF operated and the condition of the force, as set out in the defence review.

One of the key concerns the panellists had posed was the need for a national agreement on SANDF funding, as there was a gap in what the defence force was needed to do and the budgetary limitations associated with that obligation. The truth was that the current economic climate in South Africa was weak, and the probability of change depended on various external factors beyond South Africa’s control. Different views on the balance between short, medium and long-term operation were articulated in relation to staff, resulting in a disparity between the deployable power of the SANDF and its administrative bodies. Similarly, the absence of an exit strategy had led to a rise in payroll costs, compounded by inflation in the ranks. The experts agreed that a robust conversation on the ideal exit mechanism and its financing, was required. Another main consensus was that while the SANDF faced major challenges, some defence force elements did work well, but there was an urgent need to address the gaps which prevented optimum functioning.

The Committee agreed that solutions to the issues raised by the experts required long-term preparation to ensure that the SANDF was fit for purpose. To this end, the Committee resolved that the SANDF leadership must consider the short, medium and long-term challenges, and come up with ways to fix them.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed Committee Members and the invited guests to the mini symposium. Three presenters had been invited to present papers for this mini symposium, and the matters that would be raised today would afford the Department an opportunity to ponder. It would also present a perspective to the Committee members.

The critical issue was that the Defence Review undertaken by South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had made some observations, one of which was that the defence force was in a critical stage of decline. Another was that the Department of Defence (DOD) had raised concerns about inadequate funding which had led to the continued deterioration of its abilities. There were limited funds available now for defence, and the force was overspending on the compensation of its employees, which in effect was crowding out its ability to spend on equipment, technology and operations. There was no money to fund the modernisation of the SANDF’s equipment.

It had being mentioned in Committee meetings that the force was aging and top heavy -- though there was no unanimity on the top heavy diagnosis. It was suggested that force rejuvenation was required not only to save money, but to also bring down the median age of the force, and that a fit for purpose SANDF was what was required. The point raised in the last meeting was that the defence force needed to reduce its reliance on a total workforce of 75 000 members in the regular force.

These concerns had brought about the topic for today, which was force design, which also included the force structure and force level. The defence force said it wanted to maintain a force of level of 75 000 members. The Committee disagreed because of the current fiscal challenges. Looking at the current economic outlook, the economy was unlikely to improve any time soon -- the projected revenue was likely to decline. This was the assessment of the Finance Minister. The possibility existed that the budget deficit was going to widen as they moved forward, and all departments would be compelled to review their various budgets.

The Committee’s guests today had written extensively on force design.  The guests were invited to present their papers.

Force design and related challenges      

Prof Lindy Heinecken, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Stellenbosch University, said it was important to recognise where the country began in 1994 in order to understand where the defence force found itself today. In 1994, the military had faced the dual challenge of moving from a conscript to an all-volunteer force, at the same time heading to integrate seven different armed forces. Following this, there had been massive downscaling, demobilisation and organisational restructuring as it moved to an all-volunteer force.

She said the related challenges had been force imbalances, lack of career planning or force development strategy, the introduction of military skills development systems as an attempt to rejuvenate the military, and the retention of people no longer fit for purpose

The crucial issues for discussion on addressing the misalignment in the force design were consensus on mission roles and realignment. Another important component was how to grow the reserve component to address the capability gap, rather than using contractors. There should be some options to increase the reserve components in a constructive way to benefit society and the military. Military bases had to be re-aligned and closed. However, before this could be done, there had to be an agreement on force design and structure.

The SANDF was standing on the precipice of yet another organisational transformation. The current crisis was a perfect time to re-set the force design and structure processes in order to transform it for the future. The country needed consider whether it should have a reactionary and constabulary force more suited to meet the cyber and internal threats it faces.


SANDF force structure and force design

Dr Moses Khanyile said the purpose of the presentation was to provide an input on matters related to the SANDF’s force structure and force design.

The force design comprised those components of the defence force, within the wider SANDF structure, which could and may be mobilised for operational deployment, or which directly supported defence operations.

The force structure was the complete structure of the entire defence organisation, inclusive of the force design, and ranged from the Ministry of Defence at the highest level (Level 0) to the diverse units at Level 4 in the organisation. It includes all present and future capabilities required for the execution of the defence mandate, reflecting differing levels of equipment, and the indications for the opening and closing. It comprised both the combat and support elements.

The force structure determinants depended on whether its mandate was broad or narrow, and such issues as threat perceptions, financial resources, geopolitical considerations, the national disposition towards the military and political will.

Points to consider were that the SANDF had to devise and adopt a force structure planning model for consistency, and performance metrics/ratios had to be developed for oversight and monitoring. Factors to be taken into account would include the budget split – 40% for human resources (HR), and 30% each for operating and capital expenses – and ratios for support versus combat personnel, and for deployable and non-deployable troops. There would also be HR issues such as levels of seniority, exit strategies, prescribed personnel and budget ceilings, and performance agreements for senior personnel.

SANDF force design

Mr Helmoed Heitman, independent defence and national security analyst, said that defence planning was vastly more difficult in times of peace when there was no clear enemy on which to base plans and force strength and composition. Most countries met this challenge by trying to maintain forces adequate and appropriate to counter existing and predictable threats, and with the adaptability, flexibility and agility to meet unexpected threats. That was sometimes termed “the minimum required force.”

The SANDF was, in fact, too weak to meet that standard – short of combat units, short of deployable personnel and with some key capability gaps.

The SANDF was not massively over-staffed for its roles and missions. What had actually happened was that it was caught between declining funding on the one hand and expanding missions and salary inflation on the other. This was aggravated by:

  • Ageing personnel in junior ranks who were, by virtue of seniority and having families, extremely expensive compared to the cost of younger soldiers;
  • A surplus of administrative and management bodies that added little value but were over-staffed and over-ranked.
  • Rank inflation, in part dating from the previous SADF, and in part a result of the integration process after 1994;

It was unfortunate that the 40:30:30 formula had been put into the Defence Review. The ratio of personnel costs to operating costs and capital funding was not something that could be set to a formula. It depended on the nature of the defence force which, in turn, depended on its mission sets.

The SANDF, for good reason, was “army heavy,” and the army was, for equally good reasons, “infantry-heavy.” The result was a higher personnel cost component than for a more technology-intensive defence force. To put this issue in perspective, only five North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) militaries spend 40% or less of their allocation on personnel, including Estonia and Norway, which still had conscription, while four NATO militaries spend more than 70% of their allocation on personnel, including Belgium, Greece and Portugal

Mr Heitman referred to the SANDF’s rank inflation, and said it was not as badly over-ranked as some assumed. Comparison with other forces did suggest some over-ranking, but a medium-sized defence force would be over-ranked compared to a larger force because some posts simply were colonel or general officer posts, whether overseeing 14 or 40 units, or a smaller force, because the medium size force would have functions that simply did not exist in a smaller force.

There was a benefit to having a surplus of senior personnel in peace time, particularly colonels and warrant officers, because they were an invaluable reserve when the situation required expansion, and they were the organisation’s institutional memory. 

Prof Heinecken summarising the key issues, and said there was consensus between her opening presentation in terms of the challenges faced by the defence force and the suggestions proffered on how some of them could be addressed. The key take away was on what the society and government wanted the defence force to do and when that crucial decision was made, then one could make head way. The defence force also had to come up with what they could and could not do, and tell the government what it should focus on doing. These had to be done before looking at personnel cuts and other things.

One of the points she raised was internal control. Looking at the personnel challenges, there were areas to be addressed critically, like rank inflation, as it could help to reduce the personnel budget. In a defence force such as South Africa’s, if one was going to decide on roles, one should have a rapid reaction force with some expeditionary capacity to deal with insurgencies and emergencies in the region. This should be thought of regionally and globally.

In dealing with these issues, there were areas that would need to be, or were, personnel heavy. There also needed to be consensus between the government and other government departments, such as trade and industry, education and defence, in terms of what they want out of the defence force and what it was the force could give back to society. This was the big question that had come out in all the presentations.

This also related to the exit mechanisms. It was not fair to recruit young persons who had very little life experience to the force, based on personal experience of dealing with young people. It was unfair and unacceptable to bring disadvantaged youth into the military, and then put them back on the street and expect them to re-integrate. There should be a closer synergy between the military and the Department of Trade and Industry and the Education Department, because more capacity was needed. These recruits should be trained for a second career.


Mr S Marais (DA) commended the presenters for an outstanding presentation, and said it was frightening to hear what had been said. He also complimented the Chairperson for facilitating the meeting. This was the time of interaction, and the generals should just listen and observe. Unfortunately, all that had been said was the absolute reality that they were faced with. How should one move forward? In his view, there was immediate short time problem. It was known that the budget was R3b over the provision for the cost of employees, and the Secretary of Defence had just been informed that the ceiling had been reduced by another R1.7b. The amendment to the Coved-19 budget had a shortfall of R1.5b. Operation NOTLELA, which lasted until the end of this month, had another shortfall of R1.5b, which hopefully could be addressed in the medium term budget. All of these shortfalls amounted to R7.7b in the immediate future.

The big fear was that the generals had said that if they were instructed to do anything, they just did it and the country was appreciative of all they did. What should be done now that Treasury had said in plain terms that there was no more money? The Committee wanted a certain force structure and design, and to set the budget accordingly. The question he himself battled with was whether SA still needed all the armed divisions -- army, air force, navy, army medics, etc -- knowing it was not in any border war as before? What was its situation with regard to force multipliers? They had to be realistic with the situation they were faced with now.

Mr D Ryder (DA, Gauteng) appreciated the presentation, and described the information presented as empowering. This was a much bigger discussion that should incorporate the executive branch of government, as well as the armed forces. They actually needed to work out what they wanted to be, because they could not be all things to all people. The challenge was the unfunded mandate and the military being drawn into issues that they had not budgeted for, and then been left to play catch up. The fact that last year the air force and navy had to ask for just R1b to carry out basic maintenance was an indictment on them all. Yet they were sitting on an unfunded organogram which cost R3b per annum. Just yesterday, the military were saying they needed a 77 000 strong force, but had only 73 000, and Treasury was telling them they could not have that and they should sort themselves out.

The big question was what they should be doing going forward. All this was happening when, for the first time in 26 years, they were sitting with a credible military threat in the region. The discussions should be framed along the lines of what the government wants the defence force to be, and whether they could afford it? There should be a realistic discussion around this. The Minister was saying the other day that there would be no defence review for the foreseeable future. The first step really was to admit the problem, and then work out what was possible within the framework of available funds.

Dr B Holomisa (UDM) said the defence force was here to stay, but what needed to be done was to implement the review recommendations, but not do them all at once. Since 1988, the army had not had the necessary equipment. Sometimes one got worried seeing the levels of civil disobedience all across the country. They had witnessed where in some instances, the army was working with the police, and if the protests continued to grow, the army would be asked to get more involved. They needed to phase in the recommendations of the defence review, and it had to be led with the recommendations from the defence force on their current state of affairs -- firstly on their state of readiness, and secondly, what threat was imminent. They were all looking at Mozambique, but his assessment was that the enemy was going to be within SA, beginning with those involved in civil disobedience.

This Committee had to recommend to the Minister that the Department of Defence should submit a memo to Cabinet in a bid to secure the political will. It was very worrying to see defence force members struggling this way. As the government had voted R500b during this pandemic, the defence force should have been given at least R3b of that money, and now most of that money had gone to the thieves. Something had to be done, starting with the submission of a memo to Cabinet and an instruction to the Minister to give the Committee timelines. Since 2010, they had been talking about the same thing.

Ms A Beukes (ANC) observed that society was not seeing the defence force as a career of choice. There was a need to popularise it as a career choice for young people. Schools and further education and training (FET) colleges should be engaged to have information sessions for youth to realise that there were a lot of opportunities there for them. They should modernise the force as a career, starting with progressive programmes and community engagements.

Mr T Mmutle (ANC) welcomed the presentation, and agreed they had been empowering. The presentations all pointed to South Africa having a modernised force. The force should start using more technology and stop its reliance on manpower. In the future defence force, they should not need as many troops as they had now. They should instead have the technological know-how, with drone operators and so forth. They also needed the political will to address the challenges they faced.

Mr T Mafanya (EFF) said the mini symposium was very enlightening. He proposed an urgent meeting of the Committee, where the detail of what had been derived from this symposium would be discussed in detail. They had been shown where the deficiencies of the forces lay. In previous engagements, they had inadvertently painted a rosy picture that things were acceptable, if not for the lack of resources. Today’s meeting had exposed that the problems were not only budget constraints, but also that future planning was lacking. The Committee should have a meeting, with the Minister present, where it deliberated thoroughly on what transpired from today’s symposium. 

Ms M Bartlett (ANC, Northern Cape) wanted clarity on the ratio of 40/30/30. Another was the issue of overstaffing. They wanted to cut 30 000 from the force, and she worried about the swelling of the ranks of the unemployed.

Mr Thabang Makwetla, Deputy Minister of Defence, said he was being put on the spot as he thought they were there just to observe and listen. As the experts had spoken, it would be interesting to also hear from the generals with their technical inputs as well, as the ministry would have a fair appreciation of what it should be considering as a way forward. The issues presented were real and difficult, and they were all alert to the fact that war was a continuation of politics by other means. The issues were in the realm of politics, and this was SA today deciding politically what it wanted the country to do.

The observation that was lamented here was that the defence force did not have adequate political support, which showed that they could not resolve this matter by themselves alone, but with the country holistically. Citizens and the country’s leadership must have a view that was enabling those responsible for the defence function. Important points had been made -- that military organisations were central organs for influence in global defence. When one talked about where SA’s defence capabilities were, its ability to influence what the country wanted to have, either regionally, continentally or globally, must be discussed. SA could even say it did not care what was happening in all these spheres, or care not to have influence in the world. They were a function of how the world had influenced their own national and domestic issues and got them to where they were. It would be very surprising if SA should decide not to have influence on happenings continentally and globally, because South Africans should appreciate that they were living in a globalised world. If people around SA’s neighbourhood were struggling and facing hardships, and SA decided not to influence events there, it would be a big shame.

The problems refer to low levels of budget cuts visited on the defence sector over the years. To resolve the issues mentioned, they needed a budget and the issues could be resolved in record time with the right budget. There was a need to be bold in repositioning SA’s defence establishment, and this was going to require deliberate interventions to mend the cracks emerging on the horizon today. They should not continue sustaining it, based on yesterday’s threats, but redesigning it with that in mind. This matter of redesign spoke to structure and processes of the way the force was functioning. The redesign should be informed on today’s threats. It was refreshing that the inputs made were touching on these crucial issues.

Gen Lindile Yam, Chief of Staff, SANDF, promised the generals would go on a retreat later to dissect the presentations. The defence committee had been busy with the force design and force structure, to put meat on the bones of the defence review, so he would rather not say much at this time.

Maj Gen Roy Andersen, Chief: Defence Reserves, SANDF, aligned himself with much of what had been said in the meeting, but the solutions were where the challenges lay. The hole was deep, and there was no money to get out of it. How could one have an exit mechanism when one could not fund it? Everybody said the exit mechanism would be solved by reducing the staff force, yet no money of any substance was forthcoming. The risk of putting unemployed soldiers on the streets was a daunting one. Someone really had to come up with alternative exit mechanisms.

What was worrying was the lack of affection for the soldier in this country. Not that the USA was a good example, but in the US, if a soldier walked into a restaurant, he or she would not pay for their meal. Here in SA, they deployed troops for five months and the public did not understand the harsh conditions the troops were living under, and the boredom and fatigue that sets in. No single organisation had said ‘thank you’ to the troops, including the SAPS as well. The veterans’ organisations were quiet, and so was the business community. No one said ‘thank you,” and this tells them that the hearts and minds of the population had not be won. Many people say a soldier was lucky to have a job, and that they were just doing their job, but he thought of them doing more than their job.

Just in the reserve force, they had 14 000 reserves called up, and nine had lost their lives during this period, some by natural causes, others by vehicle accidents and Covid-19. There was no gratitude in the country. The politicians could help the Department to shift the mindset of the population. They should be proud of their soldiers and support them.  He belonged to two veterans’ organisations, and he had taken them to task over why they had said nothing – not even a mere ‘thank you.’ The issues of today were very relevant, and it was something they should all take away to digest and come back with concrete actions.

Closing remarks

The Chairperson said it was an on-going discussion among the Committee Members with the DOD. The Chief of the SANDF would be addressing the Committee in a month’s time on the force design, force levels and issues that had been discussed today.

There was a view that having 75 000 soldiers was unsustainable, and they should consider reviewing that position, but only the force design could give us that information. They were not asking that people should be let go and thrown out on to the street, but there were right ways to getting into the right size, though they did not know what that right size would look is. When all the threats and risk analysis had been examined and the force design produced, it would talk to the right size. To get to the right size, humane processes had to be followed, one of which could be natural attrition, conceding that there were more people than were needed by the force. The question was, why were they retained when they were detrimental to operational and capital capabilities? Another was overloading the SANDF with activities, and when they were given a task to perform, they had to be funded to execute it. In other words, additional activities must be given only with pre-funding or cost recovery in place.

Prof Heinecken, in her closing remarks, said the defence force had not done enough to market itself and show what they did besides defence. They played a critical role in social upliftment within society, and this was something they should market and point out more clearly. Society did not know what value they were adding to the people and to the youngsters, which was quite substantial. There needed to be a wider debate beyond today’s meeting, because the force was sitting in the midst of a major organisational transformation in terms of force design and structure. These issues had to be taken forward, otherwise the force would be unable to serve the wider SA society.

Dr Khanyile added that the issue of force structure and design had been on the agenda for a while, and it had addressed so many social issues just by identifying the problem. However, the exit side of it seemed to be posing a bit of challenge, and it might need some refinement so as not to cause social problems. Another was the emphasis on pre-funding for commitments involving the force. His view was that Treasury might listen to the Department if they cogently made their case, just as they did for the UN redeployment. Another option was for regulars and reserves to work hand in hand to complement each other. This had to be reignited and implemented so as to help alleviate some of the personnel issues. Lastly, the HR issues could not be addressed exclusively by cost containment. Maybe they should also look at how they could go about raising capital for the Department so that they could become partially self-sustaining through certain projects, as they had vast tracts of land, buildings and old equipment that could be sold, and other assets. All these could raise capital that could be re-invested, to ease some of its challenges.

Mr Heitman explained the 40/30/30 ratio. It meant that 40% of the budget should go on personnel, 30% on operations and the other 30% on capital. On cutting 10 000 personnel, the SANDF was not over-staffed, but it had the wrong people, such as old people, and it could shed 10 000 persons. However, it may impact on the force’s expansion capability, depending on who was shed. It was achievable, but not desirable. He agreed with the deployment of more technology and having fewer boots on the ground, but there were some jobs that could be done only with boots on the ground. If they were focusing primarily on defence instead of attack, then technology could do that, but if they had to do peacekeeping and stabilisation operations, then boots would be needed.

Treasury tended to think it was their money, forgetting that they were just part of government. What type of defence SA should have was a decision that must be taken by the executive, and not by Treasury. If one went back to President Mbeki in 2001, he had discussed the millennium Africa plan, which later became the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). He had said “there was a pre-condition, which was creating peace and security and democratic governance, without which it would be impossible to engage in meaningful full economic activity.”  Some people forget that part of it. Mr Lekota had also said there could be no development without security. Former Tanzanian President, Benjamin Mkapa, had also said that if one’s neighbour was not stable, one could not be stable for long. If one’s neighbour collapsed, it could not respect the boundaries between them. These were the realities which civilians and Treasury tended to forget.

The Chairperson thanked the speakers, and said their input would help them when they engaged Treasury on these matters. This symposium had assisted in isolating issues for further dialogue.

Deputy Minister Makwetla thanked every participant for their input. He was bound to think that the reason for this symposium was the thinking that another defence review was eminent. However, the Minister had been forthright in stating that that was not the case at all, because that was a cumbersome exercise. They would rather have this kind of forum to feed into the adjustments of the defence review on the table at the moment.

The Chairperson thanked the DM for accepting the invitation and participating in the discussions, and the presenters for their outstanding presentations. The discussions would continue.

The meeting was adjourned.


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