South Africans shudder when they hear about arms deals. The ill-fated Seriti commission of inquiry, instituted by President Jacob Zuma in 2011, is doing little to placate their fears. In general, there is suspicion that military acquisitions will serve to ensure kickbacks to politicians, as was alleged to have happened in the controversial post-1994 multi-billion-dollar arms deal.
However, at the same time, there is a surge of patriotism when the government speaks of building peace in the rest of Africa, and ‘finding African solutions to African problems.’ Working with partners on the continent to stop wars is an increasingly popular notion, especially in the wake of the South African military losses in the Central African Republic last year.
For years now, military strategists and the top hierarchy of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) have been saying that sending troops to conflict-ridden areas of Africa necessitates strong military capability – something that South Africa does not currently have. Speaking at a seminar at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on prospects for achieving maritime security in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on 11 April, Rear-Admiral Rusty Higgs, Chief of Naval Staff of the South African Navy, again lamented the fact that the commissioning of much-needed patrol vessels was stopped six years ago, and that defence spending has dwindled to 1,1% of the nation’s budget.
The navy needs a significant number of ships if it is to patrol the troubled oceans around SA
The question now is who will win out, and whether Parliament will, in the coming months, approve the recommendations of the latest Defence Review.
Higgs emphasised that the navy needs a significant number of patrol ships if it is to patrol the troubled oceans around South Africa – where 95% of the country’s trade passes through – and successfully combat piracy, drug smuggling and human trafficking. ‘Patrolling is controlling,’ said Higgs, adding that South Africa also needs warships and ‘expeditionary capability,’ which would allow South Africa to undertake operations in complex conflict situations and for long periods of time.
Following the signing of the SADC Maritime Security Strategy by heads of state in Luanda in 2011, South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania have been working closely together in anti-piracy and other maritime security operations in the Indian Ocean. This is the world’s third-largest ocean, and it carries half of the planet’s oil trade. The navy frigate SAS Spioenkop is currently patrolling the Mozambique Channel as part of the anti-piracy Operation Copper.
Because of the colonial legacy that forced countries to look inward and very often to neglect their coastlines, naval capability in SADC is limited. The idea was therefore that South Africa takes the lead in these operations – it does, after all, have four frigates and 11 warships – until such time as the other navies can build capacity. In some countries in the region, defence spending now far outstrips that of South Africa. Angola, for example is spending 4,2% of its budget on defence and Namibia 3,9%.
Increasingly, though, the SADC Maritime Security Strategy is paying off. Higgs reported that a number of countries in the 11-member organisation have signed cooperation agreements at the 20th Standing Maritime Committee meeting in Lusaka earlier this month (4 to 5 April). These include agreements to establish maritime domain awareness centres (MDACs) in Mozambique and Tanzania, which will be linked with those in Durban and Cape Town, and the signing of a cooperational framework between Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. South Africa, Angola and Namibia are also finalising a memorandum of understanding on maritime cooperation, which will address maritime security on the west coast.
The idea was that South Africa takes the lead in these operations
However, Joao-Paulo Coelho from the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, pointed out at the ISS seminar that SADC countries also have their own priorities, and do not always see eye to eye. For example, Mozambique is now spending €200 million on ordering 30 patrol ships from France, which will partially be built in Romania. The first two of these vessels were set to sea in France amid some controversy last month, with French media questioning why none of the construction was being done in Africa, and whether Mozambique, already hugely indebted, could afford such an expensive deal. Coelho remarked that the deal ‘left a bitter aftertaste’ for South Africa, who would have liked to build at least some of the Mozambican patrol boats.
But all is not lost for South Africa. The much-talked-about Defence Review recommends that South Africa increasingly build capacity to play its rightful role in peacekeeping in Africa. Higgs says he believes the cabinet and his ‘commander in chief,’ the minister of defence, are keen to adopt the recommendations of the Review, to be discussed by Parliament after the elections on 7 May.
While this is under consideration, Project Biro, which was put on hold due to the political issues with the arms deal, is now up and running, and the first South African-built offshore patrol vessels should be ready by 2018. If the Defence Review recommendations are followed, defence spending will increase annually to reach 2,4% of the budget in 2030. But, Higgs warned, ‘a navy isn’t something that can [simply] be switched on,’ and that it will take decades to reach full capacity. Still, he stressed that there can be no ‘shortcuts’ when it comes to acquisitions. ‘Whatever we do must be completely transparent and squeaky clean to allow us to actually go ahead, otherwise we will end up with another Seriti commission in a few years,’ he said.
Given the cloud that hangs over defence acquisitions because of the arms deal, it will be increasingly necessary for those in favour of more spending on the military to make a clear case for exactly what they need, and why. Already, it seems that the threat of piracy off the east coast of Africa seems to be waning, but there are multiple other threats plaguing the oceans. These include the smuggling of ivory and heroin, and the modern-day slavery of women and children who are removed by force and ‘sold.’ The upcoming parliamentary debate on South Africa’s future military strategy certainly promises to be interesting.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant