No more weapons

2009-12-03 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s newspaper readers may have noticed a fairly regular flow of articles which paint a bleak picture of the South African National Defence Force’s capabilities and implicitly or explicitly argue for a dramatic increase in its weaponry and budget allocation. This article offers a critique of these arguments and an alternative viewpoint.

My first concern is that the writers of these articles seem to be locked in a World War 2 mind-set. They talk of fighting for air superiority, of our harbours being mined and invasion by sea as if these are likely possibilities. Such concepts were relevant 65 years ago, but they are not any longer. Interstate wars are very rare, the only one in Africa in the past two decades being that between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Worldwide, leaving aside the rather special case of Iraq, what are the examples of countries invading one another? It is not the way countries do business these days. And despite perceptions to the contrary, the number and intensity of civil wars in Africa have fallen dramatically over the last decade, resulting in a much more secure continent.

As with murder mysteries, we need to identify motive and opportunity or capability when thinking about potential invaders. An invasion is a gigantic logistical task and there is only one country, the United States, with the capability of invading South Africa. The possible lack of a credible deterrent is not going to encourage a country to invade if it doesn’t have a clear motive. It is up to those who promote the invasion argument to provide us with these motives. In fact, given its location and the limited capacity of its neighbours, South Africa is one of the safest countries as far as invasion is concerned. As history has demonstrated, our neighbours have far more to fear from us than we have to fear from them.

Helmoed Heitman, southern Africa correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, has recently argued for a dramatic increase in weaponry — another 22 Gripen fighters on top of the 26 being delivered, an additional three Type 209 submarines (bringing the total to six), more frigates and patrol vessels and so on, plus an additional 10 000 soldiers. It is not clear where these numbers come from. Are they just thumbsucks? What is clear is that the SANDF will have enormous difficulty in staffing the ships and flying the aircraft it currently has on order. This has been the case for many years (as an example, a number of the Cheetah fighter aircraft being replaced by the Gripens were never used) and is the result of one of South Africa’s big problems: the shortage of skilled and experienced personnel. There is no obvious reason why the SANDF should get a disproportionate share of such people as there are many other priority areas.

Another common argument is the alleged lack of capability of the SANDF to undertake basic military tasks. This may not matter much if our potential enemies have, as they almost certainly do, even less capability. It matters more to the extent that the SANDF is used as an arm of foreign policy and particularly as peacekeepers on the continent. But then it is surely a matter of “cutting our cloth according to our measure”. If we can only afford to send about 3 000 well-trained peacekeepers to other parts of the continent, then we just have to say sorry when that limit is reached. I suggest other ways of contributing to peace below.

Heitman has suggested an increase in military expenditure from 1,3 to two percent of gross domestic product and is confident that we can afford this. I have shown that the argument that South Africa needs a bigger, better-equipped military is questionable. If I am correct, any additional expenditure is a waste. Indeed, a reduction in military expenditure may be justified.

I am also not convinced that we can afford it. Economists are very aware of the concept of opportunity costs — if you spend your money on one thing then you can’t spend it on something else. South Africa has the “big five” to contend with — poverty, inequality, HIV/Aids, violence and corruption — as well as developing the health and education of our people. Arguably, each of the five threatens our security to a much greater extent than potential invaders and accordingly deserves a bigger bud­get allocation.

A central issue, of course, is the level of risk we are willing to bear. What if the highly unexpected does happen? Well, it depends on just how likely it is. It would not be sensible, for example, to build a specialist hospital in each province just in case smallpox broke out. The chances of this happening are just too small. In my view, the chances of invasion are also so small that we can live with the small risk involved and put our scarce resources elsewhere.

One thing absent from the debate is any mention of nonmilitary ways of building security. If we put more time and resources into building friendships with other countries and encouraging their development, the chances of them wanting to attack us diminish. Consider France and Germany. They fought many wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they are now firm friends and war between them is unthinkable.

Which brings me back to civil wars on the continent. I do believe we have a responsibility to help prevent such wars, to help stop those that have begun and to prevent them restarting, but we can do this in nonmilitary ways. For example, we could send South Afri­can civilians who are skilled in conflict resolution, mediation and peacebuilding to such countries when there is a need. We could purposively train South Africans to fulfil such roles. Another example would be to train nurses, engineers and teachers from war-torn countries, either in their home country or in our universities. We could become known as a country that contributes to peace on the continent using peaceful means.

• Geoff Harris is a professor of economics and head of the Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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