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South Africa - paper tiger of African peacekeeping operations

South African troops deployed along the Zimbabwe border Guy Oliver/IRIN
There is an expectation - and has been for several years - that Africa’s economic powerhouse, South Africa, would become a leading player in the continent’s peacekeeping operations, but analysts say this is wishful thinking at best, and possibly misguided.

“The international community expects more from South Africa [in a peacekeeping role], but South Africa is not deploying the amounts of troops and equipment expected of them,” Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of Pretoria-based think-tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN. “It all goes back to an overstretched department [of defence], lack of funding, transformation - which bedevils discipline - and operational capacity.”

South Africa's defence policy since the end of apartheid in 1994 has prevented the country from taking a bigger role in African peacekeeping operations. The tone was set by the ruling ANC government's 1996 White Paper entitled Defence in Democracy, which made the primary role of the armed forces defence against external aggression.

The 1998 Defence Review led South Africa to conclude a multi-billion-dollar arms deal in 1999 in which it acquired a range of sophisticated weaponry - from Gripen fighters and Hawk training jets to submarines and corvettes - "inappropriate" for peacekeeping duties, Cilliers said.

The idea that South Africa faced any conventional armed threats to its territorial integrity was "mythical", he said, in either the short or medium term, and the country’s role as regional super-power should be to stabilize the region.

Former president Thabo Mbeki was against a more active peacekeeping role on the continent: He had an "aversion" towards peacekeeping, viewing it as intervention, and preferred dialogue, Cilliers said.

The real threats to South African security were organized crime, illegal exploitation of marine resources and uncontrolled migration flows, Cilliers said.

Wrong equipment

The cost of the 1999 arms deal, which according to some independent estimates had risen to R70 billion (US$8.5 billion) by 2011, had left the country with military hardware that was both "expensive to maintain and which will probably never be used... This is the long-term tragedy of the arms deal [in that it constrains South Africa’s peacekeeping abilities],” Cilliers said.

Greg Mills, head of the Brenthurst Foundation, a South African think-thank established by diamond magnates Nicky and Jonathan Oppenheimer, said in a 2011 discussion paper entitled An Option of Difficulties? A 21st Century South African Defence Review, that South Africa had fallen between two stools in its military vision.

''At the heart of any force design is the necessity of deciding which league you want to play in - and then fund at that level. Put differently, there’s no point in buying a luxury SUV if you can’t afford to fill the tank or replace the tyres''
“At the heart of any force design is the necessity of deciding which league you want to play in - and then fund at that level. Put differently, there’s no point in buying a luxury SUV if you can’t afford to fill the tank or replace the tyres.”

A 2010 Jane's Defence Weekly report said: "Perhaps the most startling illustration of under-funding is that the air force will only have 550 flying hours for its fighter force this year and 250 hours in each of the next two, just when it planned to `work up' on the new Gripen; lead-in fighter training on the Hawk has been cut from 4,000 hours to 2,000. The South African Air Force (SAAF) had planned the Gripen to be fully operational by 2012, but that is now clearly unattainable.”

2011 defence review

In 2011 South Africa, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, embarked on a defence review (expected to be released for public comment later this year), but it appears that a policy shift towards creating a greater peacekeeping capacity is not on the cards.

Defence Ministry spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini told IRIN the primary function of the defence force was expected to remain preparedness against external aggression.

When the ANC came to power in 1994 it inherited a disparate defence force, made up of its own soldiers; other liberation movement operatives; career soldiers from the apartheid armed forces; and various elements of the Bantustan armies of the nominally independent homelands of Transkei, Venda, Ciskei and Bophuthatswana.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which specializes in military-political affairs, said in its annual 2011 Military Balance report that South Africa had about 62,000 uniformed troops, 12,000 civilian support staff and a reserve force of 15,000.

At a media briefing in September 2011, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said 2,304 military personnel were on peace support operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan (Darfur), and the Central African Republic.

Burundi, a comparative minnow in terms of population and economy and recently a host to South African peacekeepers, currently deploys more troops to peacekeeping operations on the continent than South Africa, according to the IISS 2011 Military Balance report. (Burundi's deployments in Somalia are peace enforcement rather than peacekeeping).

At a defence review workshop in Cape Town on 24 November 2011, Sisulu said the “emerging consensus” for African countries was to assume responsibility for managing regional conflicts, and “South Africa is expected to play a significant role in this.”

However, Brenthurst Foundation’s Mills said the South African defence force was “battling” to make ends meet. The 2011-2012 defence budget was R34.6 billion, of which R22.5 billion was for personnel, R8.65 billion was operational costs and R3.5 billion capital costs.

Constraints… like drunkenness

Emmanuel Nibishaka in a paper for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation entitled South Africa’s Peacekeeping Role In Africa: Motives and Challenges of Peacekeeping published in February 2011, cited additional constraints. He identified high HIV/AIDS infection rates, aging soldiers, a top-heavy officer class, and a “serious skills shortage”.

Nibishaka said more than half the soldiers were medically unfit, with many seen as too old for active service. He added: “Due to a lack of funds the army can deploy only one operational brigade of 3,000… Military equipment is in an appalling state with only 20 out of 168 Olifants [tanks] and 16 out of 242 Rooikat armoured cars being deployed due to budget constraints.”

Since 1994 the reputation of South African peacekeepers has been tarnished by “unruliness”, Nibishaka said, including drunkenness, public brawls, consorting with sex workers, sexual harassment and murder.

“For example, the South African military in Burundi from 2002 to 2008 recorded some 400 cases of misdemeanour and approximately 1,000 military trials were heard. In DRC, the record was equally dismal,” Nibishaka said in his paper.

The changing nature of conflict

Conventional conflicts, defined as confrontations between standing armies, are rare these days. “Warfare today has largely gone back to being a task of light infantry and modern cavalry, where numbers (and getting them there) are the important aspect, along with critical enablers of intelligence, surveillance and local knowledge,” says Mills.

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Current and future instability, both internationally and in sub-Saharan Africa, was “likely to be so-called `small’ wars between ill-defined often non-state opponents, fighting for complex sets of causes ranging from greed to deeply entrenched grievances, fought at a low-intensity, employing mostly small arms. These are most likely to be fought not over territory but over ideas and symbols, among, rather [than] between peoples," he said.

South Africa's defence force should engage a younger, computer literate generation in order to grapple with the complexities of peacekeeping and peace-building; and use hi-tech, low cost, drones to monitor marine resources for "pollution; overfishing and piracy", he said.

Quick reaction forces

The Africa Union is currently building capacity for the establishment of an African Standby Brigade, a quick reaction force of five brigades, each comprising about 6,500 soldiers. Each brigade is expected to be drawn from contributions from members states of Africa’s economic trading blocs, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In September 2009, Exercise Golfinho, a training exercise for the Southern Africa Standby Brigade (SADCBRIG), saw South Africa host 7,000 troops from 12 countries, and was deemed as a success, IISS said.

"After the exercise, SADCBRIG declared that it could deploy to any location in Africa or even beyond, though the group did add the important caveat that this was dependent on available strategic lift and sustainable logistical support - two factors that remain substantial impediments for all Standby Brigade operations," the IISS 2011 Military Balance report said.

However, the Golfinho post-mortem virtually coincided with the new administration of ANC President Jacob Zuma announcing the cancellation of an order for heavy-lift military transport aircraft, seen by military analysts as vital for reacting to mass atrocities.

Heavy lift aircraft

South Africa ordered eight Airbus military A400m transport aircraft in 2005 at a cost of about US$1 billion, but cancelled the order, citing financial constraints and associated cost increases, and was reimbursed the $407 million down-payment on 19 December 2011 by the European aircraft manufacturer. The transport aircraft was expected to enter service in 2013.

Helmoed-Romer Heitman, a military and defence analyst and senior correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, told IRIN: “If you don’t have the airlift, you can’t do peacekeeping. You just can’t do it. I think they [South African government] have shot themselves in the foot.”

South Africa remains reliant on nine Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules military transporters, of which four were currently operational, Heitman said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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