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When steel turns to clay | Why the once-proud South African military is in terminal decline

Updated: Sep 20

In the post-colonial history of Africa two armed forces stand out, namely those of Rhodesia and South Africa..

Those boys and men made it into the history books for spectacular operations, ingenuity, dedication, and gallantry

In the case of Rhodesia, fighting a war on a shoestring budget was made so real that it was heart breaking for those who took part. There are stories of Rhodesian air force pilots taking out the driver with one round so that ground troops could seize sorely needed enemy trucks and earth moving equipment which were lacking due to sanctions, or the spectacular raid with integrated forces to hit a ZANU camp precisely when the bad guys were formed up unarmed for Sunday church services, in the process taking out hundreds of enemies and razing the place right off the map.

When the war ended, Rhodesian SAS, Selous Scouts and Rhodesian Light Infantry troops formed the backbone of South Africa’s 5th Special Forces Regiment, bringing a lot of experience and determination to fight to an already famous South African Defence Force (SADF), much like Finnish-born Captain Larry Thorne did when he joined the U.S. Special Forces in the 1950s in order to carry on his fight against communism.

For their part, the SADF were no slouches either. Though mostly a conscript force whose soldiers did two years of service followed by “camps” (yearly reservist deployments to the border or hotspots), their toughness, determination and ingenuity manifested itself in the Caprivi Strip, at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale and special forces raids on ANC facilities in Zambia, Angola and Botswana.

Like the German Wehrmacht of World War Two, the SADF is the professional standard by which the post-apartheid South African NATIONAL Defense Force is measured and often found lacking.

It turns out that until 1994, the SADF could deploy ARMIES to three countries within days and have a good chance of winning all three wars quickly, while today the SANDF struggles to deploy three to five battalions on peacekeeping duties to Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi, while its force complement has shrunk to around 75.000 active and reserve troops.

"Ons Vir Jou Suid Afrika" (We For You South Africa)

Things have gone downhill since 1994. White soldiers, NCOs and commissioned officers with decades of experience were forced into retirement, the military was starved of funds until it had a R7.000.000.000 per year shortfall in its operating budget.

Training facilities were not maintained, health facilities were opened to civilians to help the ailing public health care sector make up for its lack of functional hospitals, equipment, (white) doctors and nurses which either joined the private sector or emigrated, and created a climate in which competence and dedication are crimes- where the only thing that matters is how dark the tone of skin a “soldier” is walking in.

Things have gotten so bad that if a SADF Parabat (apartheid era paratrooper) once endured torture and death at the hands of Namibian guerrillas (and earned a Posthumous Honoris Crux) rather than give up the location of his mates, it was reported that just before the Battle of Bangui in 2013, a post-apartheid SANDF Parabat got on the phone to his mother in South Africa to beg her to arrange a doctor’s note so he could avoid combat.

He died, and so did 12 others, while his Parabat comrades fought against 3.000 Seleka rebels without support alongside 28 Special Forces operators until they ran out of ammo and had to retreat to the airport which was luckily in French troops’ hands- who had enough ammo to not only resupply the endangered South Africans, but also guard them until the SANDF managed to scare up some aircraft to extract them.

It emerged afterwards that the Parabats and Special Forces along with two or three Rooivalk helicopters fired 12,000 rounds (all they had) during the three-day battle, which included AG (air-to-ground) rockets, RPGs, mortars and bullets.

It sounds impressive, but one has to consider that if those 12.000 projectiles were only bullets, that would’ve not only worked out to 52 bullets per man, but given that rebels’ casualties were an estimated 500 also means effectively 40 bullets per man hit nothing, which leads to a 80% miss rate.

This indicates not only a serious marksmanship deficiency among the SANDF’s elite conventional army troops (the Parabats), but poor training and inadequate logistical and command support from back home.

After all, while the Parabats were screaming for help, 2,000 kilometers due south the SANDF found it had no bombs to load on its Gripen fighter-bombers, no in-flight refueling capabilities and no money to buy bombs either. Thus, the only option available was to fix the jets with extra fuel tanks and send them to the Central African Republic armed just with bullets for their cannons. What were they gonna do? Fire a few bursts, then wave their wings in farewell to the troops below?

Before 1994, the SADF realized it needed to modernize its arsenal and equipment. To that end it set aside R280.000.000.000 (around US $70,000,000,000 in those days) because as I was told, one U.S. Navy aircraft carrier weighed more than the SA navy’s aggregate tonnage, carried more planes than its entire air force and had more firepower than the army.

Next to it, the notorious R70.000.000.000 arms deal of 1999 was peanuts and it could’ve propelled the SANDF into the 21st century, had the democratic government not blown all that money on the so-called re-integration process.

That process saw a lot of idiots who had graduated from the KGB’s “throw a Molotov cocktail and lynch your next-door neighbor school” become captains, majors, colonels and worse, generals. That R280.000.000.000 went into white professional soldiers’ forced retirements and payments to former uMkhonto we Sizwe, Azanian People’s Liberation Army, Poqo and other terrorist groups’ members.

The R70.000.000.000 arms deal of 1999 enriched some “fixers” while the result of Affirmative Action, Black Economic Empowerment and Employment Equity was that the navy lacked qualified technicians to maintain its new corvettes and submarines, the air force had insufficient mechanics, pilots and spares, while Captain Handsome (yes, that’s his name) cracked his sub on the ocean floor during an exercise off the coast of Cape Town, to say nothing of the incompetent sailor who used the wrong current to charge a sub’s batteries, burnt them out and caused hundreds of millions of rands’ worth of damage which has still not been repaired.

There’s no money for fuel, so SA air force pilots can’t fly the required number of hours to maintain their NATO standard qualifications. Rather than lose their qualifications and go down the drain, many pilots have left to serve in Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia. The race politics don’t help either. With skin color and gender being the primary considerations for promotion, many mechanics, engineers and other highly skilled support staff have left the defense force in droves.

One story goes that a white commissioned officer who was among the few left qualified to work on the navy corvettes’ engines put in for promotion three times, only to be declined.

Fed up, he put in his resignation notice. The admiral called him into his office and asked if there was anything he could to keep him. The officer asked if he could get his promotion and when the admiral said he couldn’t do anything about it, the guy left to work in another country.

The primary job of a soldier is that of rifleman, so one would think guys and gals with killer instinct and a desire to deploy to combat zones would be highly sought after. Well, you’d be wrong if you think this is what the SA army is doing, because it actually sees such people as “potentially dangerous” (direct quote) and does its utmost to get rid of them.

In the end, much of what’s left calls mommy to arrange a sick note to get out of combat and men die abandoned thousands of kilometers from home.

You might be tempted to think that politicians would do something about it, but you’d be wrong again. Not only do they not want to do anything, but everybody from the Minister of Defense (equivalent to U.S. Secretary of Defense) on down chooses willful ignorance, call the few who are willing to talk liars and just as bad, refuse to permit them to testify before open hearings of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defense (equivalent of the U.S. Congress Armed Services Committee).

In fact, things are so bad that soldiers have a union to protect them from the abuses of politicians and military leaders, called South African National Defense Union.

Some of its members got fed up with nearly two decades of abuse and neglect, then around 2.000 of them marched in uniform on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The army tried to fire them all, only to be fought tooth and nail by the union, which managed to get most, if not all, reinstated.

After 22 years of reverse racism, the SANDF announced in 2016 that it was going to hire white recruits. This didn’t mean the top REMFs suddenly loved white people, but politicians had complained for years that racial representation in the ranks was out of whack, and this time around they were going to cut the defense force’s already catastrophically low budget even more unless they saw some pale faces in uniform.

The next question is as simple as it is devastating- will more whites in the defense force change anything? The answer is NO.

As long as the budget is wholly inadequate, promotions are based on race instead of merit, the military is put in situations it cannot cope with because of its antiquated equipment and incompetent leadership from the lowest to the highest ranks across the system, the SANDF will only be able to live in the shadow of the towering achievements of the SADF during the 1970s and 1980s, sucking the light out of superb acts of professionalism and gallantry while being unable to secure the nation’s borders, never mind take the fight to any enemy, including untrained rebels who can’t shoot straight or do close-order drill.

The army has struggled to feed its troops. Many soldiers go on for months without pay because of administrative bungles. Tough guys who want to be professional soldiers are marginalized and eventually forced out.

Security at many bases is a joke, with theft of weapons and ammunition rampant. Hell, the SANDF can’t account for at least 89.000 rifles, while during its first year of deployment in the DRC, it “lost” 17 tons of rifles, RPGs, mortars and ammo, most of which found its way into anti-Mobutu rebels’ hands.

I don’t know if that was as part of a covert program to arm the rebels, or just troops selling their arsenal for extra money, but what was unthinkable during apartheid nevertheless happened in the democratic army.

The SANDF’s strategic ammo stocks are depleted to critical levels because ammo has expired and there’s no money to buy more. Soldiers are poorly trained and many die in what were once preventable accidents as a result.

The equivalent of eight under-strength divisions are not enough to secure the country or fight off an invasion, to say nothing of overseas deployments, while the air force can’t even provide the vice president an aircraft that can fly from point A to point B without making an emergency landing due to some malfunction.

The “old guys” of the SADF would’ve cleaned the SANDF’s clock in at most three weeks and the collective soul of the armed forces is quickly approaching breaking point.

Thus, it’s my estimate that if South Africa is ever invaded, the only people who will be able to rescue her are those who served during the 1970s and 1980s, because if I had to go to war today, I’d have to be in the back to avoid being shot by mistake because today’s soldiers don’t have enough bullets to practice, to say nothing of those who’ll call home to momma…

A while after 2.000 SANDF troops mutinied in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, a lot of people were saying soldiers were unreasonable. Given that I had been one in 2001, I was in a better position to know how things actually stood, and provided a different perspective.

What follows below is a letter of mine which was published by the Weekend Post newspaper of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in which I discussed some of the “challenges” facing this what’s left of this country’s soldiers.

“Listening to troops’ complaints would ease crisis within SANDF”.

“If it’s not the Education Department taking cheap shots at teachers to cover up its failures, it’s the president, other politicians and the media sniping at soldiers.

I would be the first to acknowledge the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) is in a terrible state, mostly because I was a recruit in 2001 and saw how the Defense Force had deteriorated.

Like others, I also condemned the behavior of protesting soldiers in front of the Union Buildings, but at the same time understood most of the underlying problems which led to that incident.

Public perception seems to be that soldiers exploded like spoilt children for no reason.

This is wrong. SANDF problems go back to the early ‘90s, before the 1994 elections, when the SADF set money aside for a weapons systems’ upgrade.

That money was spent on the post-1994 integration process and left the newly formed SANDF with antiquated equipment, which Mosiuoa Lekota’s director of ministerial communications once described as “old, but serviceable”. That statement was more a case of wishful thinking. By that time (2005), morale was falling, skilled SANDF members were going to armies overseas, health care was collapsing and the administration system was (and still is) inefficient, with many troops going unpaid for months at a time because of admin bungles.

Towards the bottom of the iceberg were other problems such as the outsourcing of food contracts to civilian firms which fed soldiers with meat that was almost rotten, mildewed bread, half-cooked chicken and lamb chuck and were late serving meals.

Same thing with vehicle maintenance, which was also outsourced.

Barracks, base buildings, internal roads and other facilities were made the responsibility of the Department of Public Works which didn’t have the budget to make repairs.

As a consequence, troops live in insalubrious conditions.

Then there are the race politics. White senior officers who disciplined black subordinates were frequently accused of racism to cover up mistakes and poor performance, to say nothing of the race card being used to push people from their posts or destroy competitors’ chances of promotion.

Is there racism in the SANDF? Yes, there is, though contrary to popular perception, it’s not just whites who are racist, xenophobic or racist.

Promotions in the military are supposed to be based exclusively on merit, yet SANDF practices Employment Equity, causing many who deserve promotion to be passed over because they don’t fit the demographic requirements, as is the case with pilots and naval personnel.

As a result, qualified people leave when they feel marginalized and insulted, irrespective of skin color. From what I know, only Special Forces are exempt from such policies, merit being the only criterion for recruitment and advancement.

Then there’s the matter of insufficient funding, which led to training budgets being slashed, accidents and other problems. In a pinch, a soldier might be able to improvise some things, but it’s impossible to make modern equipment out of fence wire and tin cans.

The basic problem of the SANDF is the failure of political and military leadership to listen to troops’ concerns without firing those who open their mouths.

Their incompetence and intransigence is directly responsible for the creation of unions in the defense sector and the current dissatisfaction within the armed forces.

Those who criticize the SANDF unions either never served or pass judgments based on experiences from two or three decades ago- which are out of date and no longer reflect the reality on the ground.

Before talking about lack of discipline, dedication , reliability, honor and pride, newspaper editors and politicians should send their sons and daughters to serve in the military.

I don’t like the presence of unions in the defense force, but if those responsible for this mess don’t fix the damage caused, what option is there?”


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