The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is fast becoming a shadow of its former self, with frustrated soldiers having to go as far as spending their own money to buy work necessities such as combat boots.
Such is the vulnerable state of the defence force, that defence experts say it poses a threat to the country’s sovereignty.
Experts warn that persistent budget cuts, ageing troops, and lack of equipment, among other concerns, do not bode well for the country’s military future.
Soldiers are also being confronted by worsening working conditions, both at combat zones and at defence offices, which include seedy lodging quarters and having to work in sweltering hot office spaces, due to old, broken air conditioners.
Last year, the usage of old equipment, purchased during the apartheid-era, created a health crisis for troops stationed in Mozambique’s Macomia region.
Soldiers experienced diarrhoea after being served rotten food in October.
An investigative report from the military ombudsman, retired Lieutenant-General Vusi Masondo, tabled before MPs last week, confirmed the cause was bad rations at the base.
Investigators discovered that an old mobile pantry used to store the troops’ fruits, vegetables, and other food had broken down, and after it was taken for repairs, technicians found that it was beyond repair.
“Some of the rations stored with the disposed rotten rations were salvaged, cooked and served to and consumed by the soldiers. The salvaged rations were also found to be rotten or spoiled,” read Masondo’s report.
Although soldiers fell ill from the bad rations, the probe found that this was not done intentionally.
Two chest freezers were brought in from Pemba to replace the unserviceable mobile pantry.
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According to a source at the military, there were only two mobile pantries.
With the one that was used in Macomia having reached its sell-by date, the military is now left with just one.
“The SANDF is in a very messy state, and commanders do not seem to care,” said the source who refused to be identified for fear of reprisal.
“Uniform replenishment is a problem. We buy our own boots… They used to cost R600 and have now shot up to R1200 this year. We pay for them ourselves. We have a minister, her deputy, and commanders who do not seem to love this country.”
The SANDF member said there was no money coming in to replace old equipment and vehicles, adding that the state arms manufacturer Denel‘s demise has added more burden to the SANDF’s long standing problems.
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“Everything has deteriorated. My other concern is that with the current 70 000 combat troops, we are dangerously lacking strength in protecting each and every part of this country.
“We have been weakened. A strong defence force needs at least half a million combat ready troops. They are bringing in reserve soldiers, but the numbers still do not add sufficiently. No armed force is ever ready with a soldier complement aged 40.”
Regarding the recruitment of trainees, the number of intakes is gradually reduced every year, with a small group roped in last year, said the mole.
According to military news publication Defence Web, defence heads have informed Parliament that the annual recruitment has been done away with to save costs.
New intakes are done once every two years.
The defence budget from National Treasury is now half of what is used to be in the 1990’s, according to Defence Web military analyst Darren Oliver.
“It’s not reasonable to expect it to be as capable as it’s former self under those constraints. Many of us have been warning for years that the persistent and severe underfunding of the SANDF was going to result in the loss of certain capabilities and the decline in others.
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“We’re seeing those results first hand. It takes a lot of ongoing training and investment to preserve these capabilities.”
He said South Africa’s defence was at an “inflection point” and on the cusp of losing key capabilities completely, which would be nearly impossible to rebuild in any reasonable timeframe and budget.
“So I strongly believe we need an urgent new defence review, one that seeks to either find a way to properly fund and organise the SANDF to the level we seem to want of it, or which downsizes it and the missions we require it to perform, in order to make it sustainable under current spending levels.”
“Maintaining the status quo is irresponsible.”
What the SANDF gained over the years was now in reversal, seen through its military recruitment progress which is short of thousands more recruits compared to previous years, Oliver added.
“Ageing troops is a problem, made worse by Treasury refusing to fund regular large intakes of new recruits and structuring the exit mechanisms to favour mid-level and senior officers rather than specifically targeting those ageing in ranks.
“It’s a reversal too, because when the military skills development (MSD) recruiting system was first introduced, the SANDF made tons of progress in reducing the average age of combat soldiers.”
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SA Defence Union (Sandu) secretary-general Piekkie Greeff said those guilty of not ensuring that troops were served proper food as they perform national duties should be disciplined.
“There have been very few other instances but it is not totally an unfamiliar occurrence in any military environment, and defence forces always aim for zero instances of spoilt food among the ranks.
“The negligent party should be identified and dealt with.”
He described the defence force as “underfunded and deteriorating” because of the consistent decline in defence budget.
“The main problem is budget constraints leading to lack of maintenance of equipment and weapon systems and steady decline in effectivity. This erodes morale among the rank and file,” said Greeff.
The investigation into rations in Mozambique was initiated after Parliament’s committee on defence condemned the allegations, requesting defence chiefs to investigate and hold those responsible for the debacle accountable.
Defence Minister Thandi Modise and SANDF chief Lt-Gen Rudzani Maphwanya were absent at last week’s release of Masondo’s report to Parliament’s committee on defence.
Modise’s deputy Thabang Makwetla said he had not fully studied the report ahead of the meeting.
“We apologise to the committee… this report is being dealt with by the minister’s office. It is the minister’s forte to brief this committee or advice on this case.
“It is a straightforward and clear report… and it is up to the minister to discuss with Lt-Gen Maphwanya to agree on how these challenges should be attended to going forward.”
MPs were not satisfied with the department’s perceived lacklustre response.
Committee chairperson Vusi Xaba said the department’s response to the widely circulated allegations left much to be desired.
“I remember what chief of operations said previously before this committee, which contradicts what we are reading in this report. We were proved right, because what we just received appears to be objective, non-biased, and proving that the complaint was not without any substance.”
Defence chiefs were slammed for wasting R36 million in procuring a useless Covid-19 vaccine from Cuba.
Despite being underfunded, the SANDF went ahead and imported the unregistered Cuban drug, also known as Heberon, which they were subsequently unable to administer on the troops and had to return it back to the seller.
A ministerial task team which probed the largescale procurement of the drug, found irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure in the department.
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