In Response To William Saunderson- Meyer, Regarding His Latest Piece On The SANDF

2014-03-30 14:25

I was recently alerted to and asked give my thoughts on an article "Time for the SANDF to slim down and shape up", written by William Saunderson-Meyer for the Mail and Guardian's Thought Leader Column.

I found too many inaccuracies to simply sit back and give an opinion, So, I shall quote and reflect my thoughts on inaccuracies, and flawed assumptions by addressing them here. The article can be found here: http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/williamsaundersonmeyer/2014/03/29/time-for-the-sandf-to-slim-down-and-shape-up/comment-page-1/ 1) "It’s not a national secret that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is in serious trouble. Its barracks are unfit for human habitation, it has been haemorrhaging expertise and its soldiers teetered on the brink of mutiny in a protest march on the Union Buildings." Being the Western Cape Organiser for the South African National Defence Union SANDU, I have noted that there are genuine problems with dilapidated barracks, making it sound like they are all bad, is a bit dishonest. Yes, some of them are really in a terrible state, the worst are at Lenz Military base, Mtatha, Mthubatuba, the Bluff Navy and the semi operational 1 Recce.* note 1 Special Forces was taken over by the SA  Army in 1997, however many still refer to the base on the Bluff as 1 Recce, a name few still hold dear to them, as they became operators there, worked in a support roll, or had family living on the base. this Base was in immaculate condition *  Sure, they are in bad shape, but one can’t simply paint all bases with one brush (pun intended). Take a trip to Simons Town. Look at Waterfall Barracks (newly renovated) NCG in Pretoria, 2 Military Hospital (currently undergoing a major overhaul) and Air Force Base Waterklooff and this will become evident if one actually sees the various bases.

What most people, including Mr  William Saunderson-Meyer dont understand is that the SANDF has until now been prevented by law from maintaining or repairing its own bases, as that is the responsibility of the DPW. The neglect that can be seen, is based on one of two things, namely the somewhat useless Public Works Department, and the quality/dedication of the commanding officers, deployed at these bases. A pathetic waste of a uniform OC is key to how his/her unit looks and operates. And, it shows. In certain instances OCs have done great work in maintinance on thier base, as well as the recently formed Works regiment are assisting in pulling things right.

UNION BUILDINGS MARCH 2009.

I am sick and tired of the general public and SANDF management calling, or alluding to mutiny in this regard! It’s always those people who cry "democracy" and call for freedom of expression/human rights/freedom of association/constitutional rights, who are the first to lambast the 2009 Union Buildings marchers, many of whom are personal friends and comrades, the finest soldiers I’ve ever come across.

I’m going to state this clearly and I feel this issue needs to be laid to rest for good.On the 26th of May 1999, the Constitutional Court of South Africa, ruled in favour of the South African National Defence Union (SANDU). This court order lead the way for labour rights of soldiers in the SANDF, one of which is the right to protest. It lead to the promulgation of Chapter XX of the Act, on the 20th of August 1999, and it allows for members of the SANDF to join a military trade union, such as SANDU, partake in pickets and protest marches. This particular march, saw to it that the SANDF got  much needed pay increases and paved the way for the Defence Force Service Commission as well as the problematic SANDF Ombudsmen. Nonetheless, the SANDF, as a whole benefited, and the SANDF Management’s eyes were opened to the very real problems facing the defence force.

2) "So when the government’s leaked, long-term military strategy review reports a “critical state of decline”, it’s merely stating what has been obvious for at least a decade."

This was not a "leaked document" or a classified one, for that matter. It is, and has always been, in the public domain and it can found on the Defence Review Committee's website at http://www.sadefencereview2012.org/

And each draft has been up there during the two year long consultation process.

3) "The defence review, which Reuters news agency this week quotes extensively from, has been accepted by the cabinet but not yet released."

As stated previously, one can and always could, get hold of this "secret" defence review.

4) "This, it says soothingly, is a mere 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), a ratio ‘well below’ equivalent nations. In fact, should South Africa want to be truly safe, it should spend R116-billion a year, or 3.3% of GDP, on the military."

The Defence Review can basically be seen as an analysis of the defence force’s needs, based on national policy and budget. if you look at the top 5 world military spenders according to SIPRI yearbook 2013, you'll see what is spent (see table below)

Found on Wikipedia

According to Darren Olivier a well respected South African Military expert and Senior correspondent at Africa Defence Review:

“The Defence Review Committee has always been clear in stating that a defence budget of around 2% of GDP would be required to properly sustain the necessary level of capability. The figure of 3.3% is an ideal maximum and is not being seriously considered. "

5) "What a load of bollocks. What the SANDF needs is not simply more money, more matériel, and more men, but to start using existing resources better. The SANDF needs to slim down and shape up."

Such a charming way of putting it, but no, the writer is wrong! Chat to any soldier, throughout all ranks (I doubt the writer knows any or has bothered to ask any soldiers) and one will immediately be made aware of the realities. The SANDF is, in fact, underfunded, under staffed and seriously under resourced. This was evident in the CAR, recently. Logistical support and resources ran out very fast.

6) "First, there’s the ballooning 97 000-strong muster. A modern military is not a retirement home at which to park one’s aged liberation war cadres who are no longer fit for purpose. South Africa has the oldest infantry troops in the world but the SANDF says it can conceive of no ‘humane exit mechanism’ to thin its ranks."

This is simply not true. Retirement age is 60 for soldiers and there is also an early exit system (MEM) that pays out for early retirement. If you had a look at the "lads and lasses" who are actually deployed, you’d be shocked to see many 18 year olds in their ranks. The age profile of the force is drastically changing since the MSDS (Military skills developement system) has started. Again, over exaggeration seems to be the writers method of gaining readers for his column.

7) "Then there’s weaponry. Not surprisingly, the top brass and the defence contractors are at one that SA needs more “heavy-combat ability”, presumably tanks and attack helicopters. Unfortunately, the SANDF is already sitting with an array of expensive hardware that it cannot deploy, either because it lacks the skilled crews – hence 12 mothballed Gripen aircraft – or because it can’t afford the running costs."

This is a contradiction to the previous stance of "what a load bollocks". More personnel are needed and, naturally, more money is required to fund these personnel and skilled crews, and to train more pilots for the Grippen fighter jets. What with the low salaries on offer, new pilots learn to fly, get the hours and then leave for greener pastures. Staff retention is a major problem. The Defence Review actually emphasises transport aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft and new vehicles for the Army, not tanks and attack helicopters. These are critical needs.

Upon enquiring with Darren Olivier, the following was said regarding the Grippen comments which are unfounded and devoid of fact:

“Those 12 Gripens are not mothballed, they are in rotational preventative maintenance which allows for a return to the flight line within two days. Each Gripen, including those 12, is flown at least once every sixty days, often more. The Squadron flies around 600 hours a year.The low number of Gripen hours available is in fact because the defence budget, as it is, is too low. It’s lower than what was recommended by the 1998 Defence Review, and in real inflation terms the actual amount provided each year is often a decrease. Especially as most direct flying costs, such as spares, fuel, etc, are priced in US Dollars."

8) "Finally, there is the extent of the SANDF’s mandate. The military’s first duty is to protect our borders. Anything else is not only a costly addition, but detracts from it being able to execute its primary function."

Again I quote yet another source.

"The White Paper provides that `the primary role of the SANDF shall be to defend South Africa against external military aggression’ (Chapter 2: par. 11.9, reiterated in Chapter 5: par. 2). The White Paper does, however, acknowledge that `provision will have to be made for the special requirements of internal deployment and international peace support operations’ (Chapter 5: par. 3) and that `the acquisition and maintenance of military equipment shall take account of the particular requirements of peace support operations’ (Chapter 5: par. 26)."

http://www.polity.org.za/polity/govdocs/white_papers/defence/defenceprocure4.html

9) "The government, however, is increasingly using the SANDF as an extension of diplomacy, to project power elsewhere in Africa. That’s a dangerous vortex. That’s a thankless task. Most critically, that’s futile – there are always more places to intervene and interests to protect than there is taxpayer money."

Firstly, the SANDF does as it’s told, if it didn’t we'd have a serious problem! Secondly, stability in Africa is of paramount importance. We need a peaceful African continent. Peace will ensure investment and the creation of jobs with the resultant reduction/eradication of poverty. This is the goal. One only need have a look at the success of the SANDF contingent involved with the FIB in the DRC. Now also pushing back and deterring the FDLR, ADF AND APCLS groups. The SANDF has effectively assisted in ending a civil war in Burundi, bringing peace to the region and thr country is now doing well.

Id like to ask if the writer also believes that the SANDF should not ever help with fire fighting, search and rescue and help during natural disasters, as those too are not strictly in the ‘defence of the country'.

10) "That's all far more exciting than the simple but boring stuff that the SANDF command should actually do: improve morale, training and discipline. That would mean investing less in cutting-edge military technology and more in old-fashioned Sergeant-Majors."

The morale and training are indeed huge problem areas, but this needs money, something which is currently not in abundance. There is also a trend in management that has seen many in the top ranks not really caring for their subordinates. As for “old fashioned Sergeant-Majors”, I thought the SANDF wasn’t supposed to be a retirement home?

This is the SANDF, a National defence force which certainly has its problems however an important institution which needs to be properly managed and resourced. It makes my job at SANDU that much more difficult when people like Mr  William Saunderson-Meyer write without first seeking to understand what’s really happening. For a better understanding on what really is going on I recommend following the writings of well respected people and South African Miliary Commentators like, Darren Olivier, Erika Gibson, Pikkie Greeff and going to websites such as, www.sandu.co.za ,www.africandefence.net and www.defenceweb.co.za

Follow me on twitter @tim_meh87

*This article is a reflection of my own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the South African National Defence Union , its National Secretary, members or that of the SANDF.*

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