South Africa should make its mark on security sector reform

Despite a strong track record on police and military reform, SA’s foreign policy on the issue hasn’t been clear.

South Africa is today chairing an open debate on security sector reform (SSR) held by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The 3 December discussion builds on years of UNSC assistance to countries transforming their security institutions as a means to prevent and respond to violence. South Africa should seize the opportunity to clarify its approach to supporting such reform in Africa.

The timing of the debate is important for two reasons. First, South Africa is the council president during December and this will also be the country’s final month in the UNSC. Second, despite South Africa’s longstanding position that security sector reform is a key condition for sustainable peace, it gave little attention to the matter during its two-year council term.

The few statements that South Africa did make on reforming security institutions mainly referred to specific themes and country files rather than standalone issues. This is quite different from its approach to other priorities such as multilateralism, the Women, Peace and Security agenda and relations between the UN and the African Union (AU).

Today’s discussion gives South Africa a chance to reaffirm its foreign policy vision for supporting security sector reform as part of its post-UNSC legacy. Before its council tenure, the country co-chaired the UN group of friends to SSR. This was for years one of South Africa’s most visible engagements in the UN.

Achieving nationally owned and inclusive security sector reform is still a problem in Africa

South Africa has a strong track record of providing security sector reform assistance to African countries. Its Civilian Secretariat for Police, police service, defence force and justice department have all made important contributions. South Africa delivered bilateral support in Burundi through the South African National Defence Force. In Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa assisted under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community and UN respectively. 

The UNSC’s first standalone resolution on security sector reform stresses that nationally owned and inclusive processes are essential for successful peacebuilding. Recent Institute for Security Studies research on The Gambia’s complex reform effort shows that six years after the resolution was passed, meeting these two conditions is still a challenge.

Security sector reform in The Gambia has been slowed by delays in developing laws and policies to guide change. This has led to problems in the way reforms are sequenced and prioritised.

International partners have focused on implementation gaps in their project designs rather than a broader vision for The Gambia. For example, military and police training was conducted before rightsizing exercises and without clarity on how the various courses reinforced each other. A credible partner such as South Africa could engage at the highest political level to encourage the government to provide coherent strategic direction.

South Africa has a strong track record of providing SSR support to African countries

Hopefully South Africa will not approach today’s discussion at the UNSC as simply a tick box exercise on an issue it was expected to cover while on the council. By hosting this open debate at the end of its term, Pretoria can clarify its path as a future SSR implementation partner.

South Africa’s strategy for supporting security sector reform could be based on its already vocal commitment to the AU’s Silencing the Guns agenda. The initiative was endorsed by the UNSC in February 2019 and has specific security sector reform goals: increasing synergy between SSR and other peacebuilding initiatives; enhancing national ownership; and generating clear benchmarks for success.

Pretoria’s backing would be welcome news for the AU, which has noted that resource shortages are a formidable hurdle to effective security sector reform in Africa. Logistical support could be a key entry point for South Africa – as suggested by Vice-President David Mabuza in March this year when he said the country would provide helicopters in South Sudan under the auspices of the AU. This is part of the efforts to support South Sudan’s latest peace agreement.

By linking SSR support to the women, peace and security agenda, SA can pursue two foreign policy aims

The AU is currently developing a three-year SSR strategy and South Africa could help ensure coordination between security sector reform and peacebuilding. The country has experience in this area. It has acknowledged the links between SSR and women’s safety in conflict settings. Its national action plan on strengthening the role of women in peace and security situations could serve as both a domestic and foreign policy instrument.

By connecting security sector reform to the women, peace and security agenda, South Africa can pursue two foreign policy aims while contributing to peacebuilding and conflict prevention on the continent. 

Today’s open debate on security sector reform is a case of ‘better late than never’ for South Africa. Will Pretoria take the opportunity to solidify its position as a key implementation partner? A commitment to support countries like South Sudan and the Central African Republic in the reform their police and armies would give South Africa a meaningful legacy once it leaves the Security Council.

Chido Mutangadura, Consultant, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

This ISS Today was published with funding from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Picture: PresidencyZA/Twitter

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