Todd Johnson has written in the Daily Maverick an insightful oped on the mismatch between what the government asks and expects the South African National Defense Forces (SANDF) to do and the amount of money allocated to them. The SANDF budget declined again for this fiscal year and stands at around 1 percent of GDP. (By contrast, the budget for education is just under 5 percent of GDP.)
The SANDF deploys as part of UN and African Union peacekeeping missions across the continent, most notably in Central African Republic, where, in 2013, three hundred SANDF personnel held off thousands of Seleka rebels in what came to be known as the Battle of Bangui, and Democratic Republic of Congo, where UN peacekeepers have the “unique mandate to conduct preventative combat operations.” The SANDF also helps police South Africa’s borders and participates in Pretoria’s anti-poaching operations. In addition, Pretoria asks the military to do a number of things not usually associated with the armed forces. For example, military personnel were sent to control a pollution outbreak in the Vaal River. The government also deploys units of the SANDF to areas in South Africa experiencing jumps in crime.
Johnson’s ire is not just that the budget is low per se, but that the South African government continues to ask more from the SANDF while at the same time reducing its budget year after year. President Cyril Ramaphosa has indicated that he will seek to realign and reinvigorate South Africa’s foreign policy after it lost its way under former President Jacob Zuma, but to do so, he will need to match those ambitions with what he is willing to budget for the SANDF. In addition to budget woes, the SANDF also faces issues regarding unsustainably high personnel costs, politicization of military operations, and the responsibility for the health care for veterans (as of 2011).
The SANDF is commonly regarded as the best trained and best supplied military force in southern Africa, though both have slipped, especially during the Zuma presidency. Nevertheless, the SANDF retains the potential for being a force of stabilization in the region.
South Africa is democratic and conducted according to the rule of law. Unlike elsewhere in Africa, the government, dominated by the African National Congress (ANC), is responsive to public opinion. Despite the wealth of the white minority, a few black oligarchs, and an emerging but still weak black middle class, most South Africans see themselves as poor. For many, perhaps most, health, housing, and educational opportunities for their children are much greater priorities than the SANDF or a reinvigorated foreign policy. This is a reality that constrains Ramaphosa’s foreign policy ambitions and the SANDF funding necessary to support it.