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Military not a magic bullet

South Africa needs to do more for long term peace.
South African Defence Force troops on patrol in Alexandra, Johannesburg, following recent violence and looting. Image: EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

In a show of force unprecedented since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, the South African National Defence Force has commissioned 25,000 soldiers for deployment across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the two provinces most affected by recent riots and large scale looting.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the deployment of the troops to support the country’s police, who had been overwhelmed by the scale of the violence.

Governments usually deploy the military as the last line of defence when they face an insurrection or revolt. The threat of or use of military force is the ultimate arbiter to quell unrest that threatens state stability or the safety of citizens, as seen in Nigeria, where the deployment of the army on internal security operations has increased dramatically since 1999.

In South Africa, the military has recently been deployed to counter gang violence on the Cape Flats and during the Covid-19 pandemic. In all these instances, there are concerns about how effective it is in these roles.

In South Africa, for now, the deployment of the army troops to assist the police has brought about an uneasy calm. But what South Africans are seeing is a negative peace – where a degree of normality returns, but in which the underlying causes of the conflict remain.

The military may help create a more stable and secure environment, curb violence and unrest in the short term, but this is unlikely to result in a sustainable and lasting peace. The cultural and structural issues underlying the violence need to be addressed. These relate to the inequalities and injustices embedded in the structure of society.

The military is no magic bullet.

Concerns about army deployment

There are many concerns around the use of the military internally in domestic operations within the borders of one’s own country.

The first concerns the government’s use of the military against its own citizens. As seen in both Nigeria and South Africa, the military is typically not trained or equipped to deal with civil unrest and has limited experience in riot control.

One risk is that communities might deliberately act out in ways that provoke the soldiers, which could result in excessive use of force. This can affect trust in the military, affecting the legitimacy of the state. The South African government has already faced criticism for its heavy handed and highly militarised approach during the early phase of lockdown in 2020. However, in general the population has a far higher level of trust in the military than in other state institutions.

The second risk pertains to prominence given to the military when faced with situations of civil unrest. Giving the military a prominent role in political decision-making in dealing with civil unrest can lead to a culture of militarism and militarisation. This results in the increased political reliance and economic investment in the military to assist with solving societal problems.

This can undermine attempts at finding more constructive approaches at conflict resolution.

Achilles’ heel

The army will inevitably be called in again to support the police. Whether the soldiers can provide this support given their limited capacity is the big question. Those deployed are predominantly from the infantry, of which there are only 14 battalions, not all of which can deploy internally. Then there are the commitments to peacekeeping operations and the border, and now to Mozambique.

In its present form, the military cannot adequately respond to the threats facing the country internally and externally, due to the way it is structured, funded and trained. The military is structured for conventional warfare. This requires expensive equipment and training and does not allow sufficient flexibility to perform the functions it actually does.

South Africa needs a military that is more capable of responding to all the challenges facing the country. These include a mix of military and policing functions. This would mean restructuring the military to be able to put more boots on the ground. What is needed is more infantry troops, trained and equipped for the tasks they are required to do. This is less costly than preparing for conventional warfare, and using the army in collateral roles as it does now.

These changes would ensure that it could meet roles like peacekeeping, border control, support for the police and countering terrorism more effectively.

Beyond this is the need to address the current inefficiencies in the state security cluster. Clearly there is a lack of visionary leadership, accountability and oversight, to enable these sectors to function more effectively.

The lack of effective intelligence has meant that both the military and police were unable to put preemptive defensive measures in place to tackle the recent violence and looting, which has left more than 330 people dead.

Comprehensive approach

A more comprehensive approach to security is required. As indicated by soldier-scholar Laetitia Olivier in relation to gang violence, what is needed is a coordinated and comprehensive plan to address the twin challenges of security and economic development.

Security and economic development are intertwined; the one cannot be achieved without the other. To date, the government has failed on both accounts, which has led to the current crisis.

What is needed is a clear national security framework to repurpose the military in terms of its most likely future roles, missions and goals. These are the roles which the military is currently performing, but it doesn’t have the force design and structure best suited for the tasks.

Tough decisions have to be made in terms of personnel, rejuvenation and equipping the military for its future roles and functions, given the current security threats facing the citizens of South Africa. This does not imply more investment in defence, but better use of the resources available.

More than ever before, decisive leadership is needed from politicians, military leadership and civil society to march the South African National Defence Force in the right direction.The Conversation

Lindy Heinecken, Chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Unfortunately I have nothing good to say about out army. The ANC inherited the strongest army in Africa. And they screwed it up.

“strongest army in Africa”. What an achievement! Still lost SWA to untrained iron agers and uninvested islanders.

“strongest army in Africa”. What an achievement! Still lost SWA to untrained iron agers and uninvested islanders.

Why do you tweet in stereo?

You have no idea do you ?

What Drivel


If you have to use the military against your own people it means that they have become the enemy !!!
The inevitable first steps towards dictatorships !!

You were moaning for the army to be deployed against the rioters the other day. Now you moan when it happened.

At what point did your lot’s endless fence sitting and whining fade into the background? The mid 90s?

You were moaning for the army to be deployed against the rioters the other day. Now you moan when it happened.

At what point did your lot’s endless fence sitting and whining fade into the background? The mid 90s?

Hello idijit !!!!!

Casper1, come to think of it, Bib and Bibby, his alter ego, actually serves a useful purpose on this site. He reminds us of the concept called the Dunning-Kruger effect that all ANC cadres suffer from. He obviously thinks he is quite bright. He even gives himself a few votes sometimes. He represents the cadre mindset here. Unfortunately for him there is nothing to loot here. So he won’t stay long…..

We can only hope for that, Sensei. Lockdown is annoying enough, we do not need to be confronted with this drivel in stereo as well. Here I plead for censorship, and that is most unusual for me.

If police did their job properly there is no need for military.

Socialists ignore the fact that the most oppressive governments, where the population live in fear of the military and the police, are all socialist states.

Socialism inevitably creates the socio-economic circumstances that necessitates oppressive authoritarianism. Once they need to deploy the army to suppress popular uprisings, the socialist government can never again afford to return them to barracks. The next logical step is to suspend the constitution and abolish human rights.

The political elite becomes the ultimate enemy of the people in a socialist regime.

Our entire military model is wrong for our circumstances in Africa.

We need to follow rather a “Costa Rica” model – where there is no formal Army, but rather a “Police Force”.

The biggest threat (and risk) to SA comes from insurrection forces WITHIN the local population. The events in KZN are perfect example, and NO surprise to any student of this developing situation.

The premise is simple.

You can readily mobilise the Police units into effective infantry units, but the reverse usually does not work well. Precisely because the mindset of the people recruited into an “army ethos” is very different (and to my point, psychologically unsuitable) for the psychologically nuanced role that is so performance-critical for
an effective policing role.

So, we will still need hard-core traditional army units (eg mechanized, artillery and Parabat brigades) in an “Army”.

But the entire infantry battalions should be removed from the Army and instead be directly merged into SAPS as normal police.

There’s obviously a lot more to this concept than can be discussed here in this comments section.

Suffice to say…

The most effective (and feared!) units in the SWA Border War were the Police units. Not “the Army”.

And the Police were so PRECISELY because they had the advantage of “police-skills” (and NOT the bludgeoning kragdadig attitudes so prevalent in typical Army recruits) to work co-operatively with the local populations.

This was the enduring lesson very successfully learned by the British in Malaya.

At the moment, the biggest RISK to SA (by FAR!) is the shockingly poor quality and outright stupidity of the leadership at top levels – in almost every sphere.

“Business” is every bit as useless.

Nothing that government does (or steals) does not happen without the tacit permission of the major taxpayers that WILLINGLY continue to find every excuse to fund this abhorrent behaviour. There are no excuses!

PW Botha must be rolling in his grave laughing at the spectacle created by these fools.

But we don’t have an Army anymore, it is a Defence Force. A very small part of the SANDF are trained to go and help other Armies “defend” itself, like in Moz at the moment. We are not going in there to attack per se, but rather to collect intelligence and help defend where necessary.

SANDF will do patrols etc. and attack if they are attacked, but will not go out there to attack.

In 2001 when I was in the SANDF we were already trained to be a “defence force”

A “Defence Force” is not a “Police Force”.

SA does not need a “Defence Force”.

The greater threat to SA is from internal stability. That internal instability is a NATURAL outgrowth of an out-of-control CRIME situation.

We need a more effective POLICE force – NOT an ADDITIONAL “Army” uselessly patrolling gangster neighbourhoods.

The “Army” is completely UNSUITED for this type of work … is just a waste of time … gets in the way of proper policing … and takes the focus away from what is necessary to be effective.

Lost to Lesotho rescued by Botswana says it all about the SANDF.

They do have magic bullets…which often turn around and shoot themselves in the foot

End of comments.





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