Military Culture

The Need for Professional Value Articulation in the Emergent South African Defence Force

Cmdt Mark Malan
Military Academy, Saldanha

Published in South African Defence Review Issue No 13, 1993


The burgeoning debate about the impending amalgamation of South-Africa's diverse military and para-military forces has centered around questions of skills, numbers, equipment and the perceived legitimacy of both the constituent forces and the resultant 'new' defence force. Whilst such matters, admittedly, demand urgent attention, one critically important issue has not been adequately addressed: the nature and substance of the emergent military culture. The word 'amalgamation' is used purposefully in this paper to encompass two ideas which are generally incorrectly treated as synonymous in this regard: integration and absorption. There is, however a fundamental difference between the two concepts which reaches beyond issues of semantics.

Integration implies the joining together of individuals or groups with other individuals or groups to create a completely new whole. The resultant culture will not be characteristic of any of its constituent parts, for each member or group will have contributed something, but none will have imposed its own culture on the rest. Absorption, on the other hand, refers to a process of assimilation whereby certain individuals or groups make adjustments for the sake of being accepted by a dominant community. It assumes that the combining groups are unequal in their cultural claims and status, and that those of weaker groups will assimilate into the norms of the stronger groups. Inter-group stratification is therefore far more marked than in the case of integration, and hence represents a far greater potential source of intra-organisational division. 1

It is difficult to refute arguments which stress the practical necessity for the structural absorption of the armed forces of the TBVC states (Transkei; Bophuthatswana; Venda; Ciskei) and the 'liberation armies' into the South African Defence Force (SADF). With regard to the cultural absorption, rather than the integration of MK in particular, however, only one argument is repeatedly advanced: the SADF is professional while MK is not. That this position may be disputed has been effectively illustrated by Dr Rocky Williams who, whilst taking the SADF to task about their unilateral claim to a monopoly on military professionalism, also issued a plea for the redefinition of 'those basic and consensual principles upon which a future professionalism could be based'
.4 Unfortunately, no visible progress has been made in this regard.

The purpose of this paper is to rekindle the debate and to focus the issue where it needs to be addressed: among the military professionals. It is the corps of Permanent Force officers which is largely responsible for the creation and transmission of the contemporary military culture of the SADF, a culture which is based on the values of what they perceive as military professionalism. It is they who should recognise that military culture is not immutable and who must take the initiative by re-appraising the very meaning of their profession.


The necessity for re-evaluating the principles and values underpinning military professionalism under changing circumstances is not unique to South Africa, and has been recognised even in the most advanced and stable democratic polities. The American military profession, for example, went through a period of deep soul-searching in the aftermath of the Vietnam war which was precipitated by indications that the traditional ethic of duty, honour, country had in many instances been replaced by rampant careerism. Careerism is the antithesis of traditional military professionalism as it evolved in nineteenth-century Prussia and as described by Huntington in his seminal work on the topic, The Soldier and the State.5 Careerism was initially described by Janowitz as a motivational complex '... whereby a person seeks what he believes to be a non-competitive and protected route to the achievement of limited ambitions'. 6 Gabriel and Savage later observed that the conduct of the US Army officer corps during the Vietnam conflict was characterised by '... a military careerism so exaggerated that protection and advancement of an officer's career at all levels seemed to have become the highest value for a substantial number of officers'
. 7

Although somewhat slow to react to the criticism of soldiers and scholars, the American military did recognise the changing dimensions of military professionalism and embarked on a process of reconciling occupational tendencies with the traditional military ethic. The precise nature of this process is beyond the scope of this paper, but the pertinent issue is that the US Army was willing to admit that all was not well within its officer corps and was prepared to redefine its professional ethic. That these efforts met with a significant degree of success was illustrated by the sterling performance of the American officer corps during Operation Desert Storm.

The SADF was quick to draw upon the strategic and tactical lessons learned by the US military in South-east Asia and apply them to their counter-insurgency efforts in Namibia and Angola, but it paid little attention to the cultural lessons. Nor did the South African officer corps embark upon a re-evaluation of the nature and content of their military professionalism in the wake of their withdrawal from Namibia, although some of the ills which led to Gabriel and Savage's indictment of the US military had surfaced: there were instances of atrocities committed against non-combatants; promotion was fairly rapid, which gave rise to a measure of rank inflation; certain officers were involved in extra-military pursuits for personal financial enrichment; and there was a tendency to vilify ideological opponents of the war effort.

The withdrawal from Namibia coincided with (and was partly precipitated by) the ideological revolution in the then Soviet Union and its East European satellites. The last vestiges of credibility were removed from the doctrines of total onslaught and total strategy, and an essential pillar of the SADF's corporate ideology collapsed. Concomitantly, the dominant political ideology of apartheid was officially denounced. The officer corps was sucked into an ideological vacuum at both the political and organisational level, where the meaning and worth of military service is normally defined. It does not make much sense to expect military professionals to make all sorts of sacrifices for 'volk' and 'vaderland'
when both concepts are at the centre of heated political negotiations. Nor can service motivation be predicated upon an enemy which 'miraculously' disappeared, to be replaced only by official estimations that the SADF faces no conventional military threat for the foreseeable future.

The SADF is not alone in its ideological paralysis, for MK faces a similar dilemma. The political ideology with which it has been indoctrinated and motivated is in international disrepute, and their corporate ideology, in as far as it exists, was influenced by the necessity for an armed struggle for political liberation which appears to have lost relevance, as the 'oppressor' is apparently committed to granting emancipation through a process of peaceful negotiation. It would appear then, that the foundations of both military cultures have been severely shaken.

It will take several years for a new dominant political ideology to emerge from the current quagmire of liberalism, socialism and contending nationalisms, and it will take many years of nation-building before it is reflected in a broadly-based political culture. During this period, the potential for conflict and instability is as obvious as is the need for stable, cohesive, and politically subordinate security forces. The implications are clear: the armed forces, and particularly the defence force with its latent power of veto, cannot wait for political direction before cultivating a new corporate ethos. Instability and weakness in the political culture demand a clear and unified military culture if South Africa is to survive as a nation.


It would appear that the SADF is aware of the need to establish a common military culture. This awareness is, however, based upon the assumption of absorption of other forces into it and the perpetuation of the current 'professional' military ethos, with some reluctant concession to the demands for affirmative action. Spokesmen for the Defence Force have repeatedly stressed that standards cannot be compromised in a technologically advanced combat force.

The image of military professionalism which the SADF projects both to the public and within the Defence Force is essentially that which was articulated by Huntington in 1957: The SADF officer is expert in the complexities of modern warfare; he has a deep sense of responsibility to use these skills to the benefit of the broader society which he is commissioned to defend; he is motivated not by remuneration, but by the technical love of his craft and a sense of calling; and he belongs to a colleague group of equals, who are mutually responsible for maintaining behavioural standards in order to safeguard the integrity of their profession. Since his functional expertise is narrowly circumscribed and intensely demanding, he has neither the will nor the desire to involve himself in politics: he is a strictly apolitical individual. Without reverting to some of the widely-published academic criticism of Huntington's construct, it is easy to point out some major discrepancies between the SADF's normative vision of professionalism and the realities of the contemporary SADF officer corps.

The officer corps is not a monolithic body of like-minded warriors. To the contrary, many have never heard a shot fired in anger and many are involved in routine administrative tasks rather than in combat or training and preparation for combat. A significant part of officer training and education is devoted to rational management techniques rather than to the principles and practices of traditional leadership. Many officers must find it difficult to ascribe to the concept of a calling rather than an occupation in a military which has recently proved highly vulnerable to the market-place phenomena of redundancy, rationalisation and retrenchment.

The corporate nature of the profession has been weakened by the public exposure of the involvement of SADF officers in illegitimate and even criminal activities. Many senior officers have displayed a marked lack of social responsibility by opting for early retirement at a time when their country desperately needs skilled and experienced military leadership. Others have penetrated the arena of the political decision-making process, and have participated in the formulation of public policy on social, economic and community matters. The service ethic is also contradicted by a significant number of officers who have established business interests, or who 'moonlight' in order to supplement their income as the inflation rate outstrips that of salary increases. The detailed exposition of retirement and retrenchment benefits published in Paratus under the title 'Gemoedsrus vir die toekoms'
illustrates the importance of material benefits to the career motivation of serving members of the SADF. 8

The technological mastery of the SADF is also disputable. The most technologically advanced arms of service, the Air Force, Navy and Medical Services, fall largely outside the boundaries of the integration/absorption debate. They are also the least politicised segments of the armed forces and have the lowest potential for successful political intervention. Admittedly, the SA Army does possess a number of advanced weapon systems for employment in conventional warfare, but the average infantryman need not be a technological genius to master his equipment. The basic technical skills of the infantry officer, for example, are acquired in less than a year at the School of Infantry.

These observations are not made with the purpose of castigating the SADF officer, but simply to demonstrate that the de facto
nature of the South African professional military culture already differs markedly from the official version described in the outdated and inadequate handbook on the ethics and etiquette of officership. Nor can the discrepancies between outdated norms and contemporary practice be ascribed to the military alone, for some have been brought about by the political expediency of the executive and by the changing nature of the broader society as it impacts upon the Defence Force. Importantly, it is clear that even a cursory examination reveals enough indications of unprofessional attitudes and behaviour to warrant an urgent re-examination and re-evaluation of military professionalism.


In the interests of a cohesive and effective defence force, immediate steps must be taken to clarify and shape professional military values. If the current institutional drift away from the traditional military ethic proceeds unchecked and unmanaged, broad societal forces are likely to shape those values by default. Further procrastination cannot be justified by the necessity to achieve prior political consensus over military structures, for the process of attitudinal modification or resocialisation requires a far lengthier period of time than does structural adaptation, and values should precede structures. As Cotton has stated: '... the shaping of values and perceptions takes precedence over the development of policies and programs ... images of military life influence policy choices'.

Political uncertainty provides another convenient excuse for postponing cultural adjustments of the military. However, uncertainty is the only thing that can be guaranteed in politics, and the extent of the uncertainty confronting South Africans is exaggerated. It is fairly obvious that an extended period of hegemonic rule is about to be replaced by some form of popular rule. Why be coy about admitting to realities? What is needed is a realistic and pragmatic approach whereby civilian and military leaders clarify the meaning of military professionalism and set the scope and limits of role obligations for members at all levels of the military hierarchy. In this regard, Cotton has concluded that '... military culture must be managed through systematic institution building by military and civilian leaders who are conscious of their corporate responsibility, and this need takes on critical significance in periods of rapid change and growing ambiguity regarding the goals of the military'.

Such a process would obviously require a high degree of value consensus, but this should not be seen as an insurmountable problem. The process need not be steeped in partisan political controversy, for it could proceed from a few basic ideas on what a democratic South African society should legitimately expect from the military profession, and what the military should expect from society. These ideas could form the basis of a corporate moral code for the defence force which includes a core definition of the meaning and obligations of military service. If military service is depicted by such a code as a calling in which the highest sacrifice may be demanded, those with an occupational orientation would not feel welcome in uniform. On the other hand, if it transpires that military service is a job in which the individual is motivated by the cash-work nexus, then so be it. Entrepreneurs may be preferable to hypocrites. A realistic appraisal should, however, fall somewhere between the two extremes, for the unique nature of the military function cannot be denied. The following considerations provide a tentative point of departure for achieving the minimum value consensus which would be required for cultural transformation and articulation.

A democratic society could be expected to demand legitimately the following of the military profession:
  • Functional competence in accordance with the role and mission of the military.

  • Understanding of, and respect for the democratic political process and basic human rights.

  • Political subservience and accountability.

  • External and internal affective neutrality.

  • Absolute honesty and truthfulness at all times, but especially when reporting to the elected representatives of the people.

  • Belief in the primacy of societal interests over sectional and organisational interests, and the necessity for the subordination of self-interest where necessary.
Society, for its part, should recognise the following as legitimate needs of military professionals:
  • A clear delineation of military roles and obligations.

  • Appropriate training and education to meet the demands of the military function.

  • Remuneration which is commensurate with the skills and sacrifices demanded by military service.

  • Respect for the integrity of members of the military profession through not placing demands upon them which would necessitate exceeding the bounds of their military function.

  • Recognition of the need for personal progression in life as well as in the military hierarchy in so far as it is based on merit, rather than ascription.

  • Security of tenure, or assistance with transition to the civilian sphere upon premature termination of military service.


A new professional military ethos created through a process of honest and inclusive civil-military deliberation based upon mutual respect would contribute greatly to the reduction of intra-military tensions and the harmonisation of civil-military relations during and beyond the amalgamation process. Further intransigence in this matter poses a threat to South Africa's national integrity in the form of a malintegrated defence force characterised by ethnic and ideological divisions, factions of which would be highly susceptible to interventionist tendencies.

The need for the cultural adaptation of the military is made urgent by the rapid pace of the process of political transition. It is therefore suggested that a suitable forum be identified without further delay, where the issue can be attended to by incumbent officers from all forces, who see themselves as part of the emergent military, and non-partisan, knowledgeable members of the broader society, free from the dictates of political expediency and the shackles of bureaucratic intransigence. Participation by members of the SADF in such a forum could only lend credence to their claims of apolitical status.


  1. C H Enloe, Ethnic Soldiers: State Security in a Divided Society, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1980: pp 63-64.

  2. E H Schein, Organisational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Brass, Johannesburg, 1985.

  3. C A Cotton, The Institutional Organization Model and the Military, in C C Moscos, and F R Wood, (eds), The Military: More Than Just a Job? Pergamon Brassey's, Washington DC, 1988: p 45.

  4. R Williams, Of Skills and Subordination: Revisiting Professionalism, in South African Defence Review, Issue No. 4.

  5. S P Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Vintage, New York, 1957.

  6. M Janowitz, The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait, The Free Press, New York, 1960: p 105.

  7. R A Gabriel and P L Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, Hill & Wang, New York, 1978: p 97.

  8. Regeringsdienspensioenfonds: Gemoedsrus vir die Toekoms, in Paratus, Vol. 42, No. 9, 1991: pp 4-5.

  9. C A Cotton, op cit: p 53.

  10. Ibid: p 46.