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The Stance of the South African National Defence Force by Lt Col Stephan Henrico


The uninformed opinions and social media comments on the deployment of the SANDF to the civil unrest areas had me fuming at the mouth. What I am about to say, I say without prejudice and as my own opinion. If my facts are wrong, I apologise and stand to be corrected, the opinion and experience, however is my own.

I am a career soldier and officer with almost 29 years service and that should qualify me to make the comments, remarks and deductions I am about to make.

I will be the first to agree and consent that there are various attributes, qualities, characteristics, features, aspects and elements of SADF that is not present in the SANDF and vice versa. There are many reason for that and I am going to start with the biggest factor of them all.


We live in a society where government is trying to rectify the wrongs of the past in whichever way and with varying degrees of success. In a society where children still drown in pit toilets and where electricity and water remains pipe dreams for some people. Where schools and our education systems are failing and service delivery to communities; or the lack thereof; has our country to a standstill, the priorities will not be the maintenance of a defence force.

I grew up with the motto “Si Vic Pacem Parrabellum” or if you want peace, prepare for war, but things have changed. I still believe that the deterrent effect of a defence force in a country has a lot the do with the stability on a social and economic level, but..……..things have changed.

In a pre “bushwar” era the country was at a state of war, although many will claim that it was never declared, I stand to be corrected. The fact of the matter is that the percentage of GDP or the national budget that was allocated to the defence force stood at about 2,5% with some even claiming it was 4,5%, be it as it may. We are currently in 2019 and with the budget speech just delivered, the budget allocation to Defence and State Security stands at R50.0bn of a consolidated government expenditure estimate of R1,84 trillion. That roughly gives us a percentage of 0.815% of the budget, but that is still not the SANDF budget. This budget must be further divided between state security and defence and when defence gets its’ share, it must again be divided between the SANDF and the Department of Military Veterans, now you do the maths.

I have heard many tales and stories of how things were in the “Army” way back when. I was fortunate to be stationed at Lohatlha from 1995-2017. The period 1995-1997 was a time when we wanted for nothing. It was a time of milk and honey, where ammunition, rations, fuel, vehicles, and all ordnance grew on trees around us and we could pick and choose and have our fill and then some more. I was not to know that this was not sustainable.

With no perceivable military threat, government had a hard time justifying continued defence expenditure. Things changed….structures changed, austerity was a word not known to us…..we however got to know the word intimately. It was the buzzword and although we prepared budgets and activity plans, did environmental analysis and planned like it was nobody’s business, we always thought that there will be money for more.

The screws got tighter and tighter and like the proverbial frog in the pan, we were being cooked alive by the process of austerity and budget cuts. We realised it when we could not buy new vehicles, when we had difficulty in making use of government contracts to procure run-of-the-mill items such as tyres and fuel.

Then came the era of “tenderneurship” and gone were the tenders and government contracts that at least made our work easier. We were faced with the hard realities of a procurement system that was built with so many checks and balances that it almost came to a complete standstill. I am still at awe of the abilities of members to commit the crime of corruption at the scale we are experiencing it, when we at middle management level struggle to process a R30000-00 government order.

So the little operational budget that we had was left unspent and treasury realised, hmmmm SANDF you are not spending the money we are giving you, let’s take some away, as it is evident you do not need it. Capital assets acquisition were extremely limited and only seriously, very well motivated, staff paper supported, statistically researched efforts were approved.

Costs are cut as we speak…..yes another cut, and another and another…….yet another. The influence on this scale of budget cuts on a defence force is unfathomable, except if you are the “casualty” of the results. I have only touched the tip of the iceberg.

The sorry state of our facilities is a constant debate amongst proud serving soldiers and veterans. “How is it possible that Thaba Tswane can look like this”. “In my days the RSM would have blown a gasket”. “Things never looked like this”. I agree! There is absolutely no excuse for papers to be lying around a unit or dustbins overflowing. The pictures of dilapidating buildings that were spread on social media is a disgrace to me as well, but again I want to point you to the budget. The Department of Public Works (DPW) is the custodian of all government owned facilities. DPW has failed us miserably, we are a despondent and dejected end-user of a sorrowfully incompetent department. The SANDF took measures in own hand and established the Defence Works Formation and trained our own artisans to take over the job of DPW, but this process is in infancy and slow due to various uncontrollable matters. The fact is that the SANDF had to take matters into their own hands and had to find the funds within our depleted budget to take over this task from DPW, who are not refunding is for this by the way. The deterioration on SANDF facilities however continues and it is a battle that will only be won over a long period of time or with serious budgetary or political intervention. We are not funded to arrest this decline.

The bulk of maintenance as far as visual discipline is concerned were done by either troops or a strong team of grounds men, so where are they? Where are they? The attrition on grounds men and cleaners whose pride was the state of their areas of responsibilities has reached an irreversible point. Every month we have, 65 year old grounds men and cleaners with 40 - 45 years of service, retiring with nobody replacing them. The youth of today do not want to be cleaners and grounds men, they want to be managers and executives. Somewhere there must be some politician or someone who can see the opportunities to at least address the issue of unemployment by again filling these posts. This comes with its own challenges as OHS regulations require training on all equipment and all of these fancy (yet necessary) safety personal protective clothing and devices, which again brings us to the budget issues.

You who condemn us and revert to your glory days, do you really think we want to work like this? Before you get all high and mighty with me, you need to put yourself in my shoes, which by the way is not the same quality as yours were, because the tender goes to the lowest bidder.

Unfortunately I can’t list all our budgetary challenges here for fear of losing my job. In defenceWeb Wednesday 23 May 2018, you would have read that the SA Military Health Service are not financially well, it’s like that. defenceWeb wrote on Thursday 11 October 2018 No money, so no implementation of Defence Review, even though it was approved by parliament. Lt Gen Yam recently stuck out his neck, by openly telling the country that the SANDF needs more than R50 billion (that means double the current allocation) to bring us where we need to be. The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans is quoted in the Defence Annual report 2017/19, as follows: “The Defence Force expected to defend and protect South Africa and to rapidly intervene during crises on the continent. It must sustain Peace Support Operations and continuously secure the land borders, the full maritime zone and the airspace. The Defence Force is also expected to support other departments, when required, and to execute our many international obligations. This level of ambition is not sustainable on the current level of funding”. Chief SANDF had the following to say in the same report: “The South African National Defence Force is still faced with challenges ranging from non-renewal of equipment and personnel, deteriorating facilities and prime mission equipment maintenance backlog, all due to decline in defence funding”. The Minister also voiced her concern in an article in SA Soldier Volume 26, No 6, 2019, page 10: “The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, has pleaded for the support of her Department’s budget in Parliament during a budget vote presentation. She said the much needed R50.510 billion budget allocated will be used to address the challenges and additional responsibilities the Department has to deal with. Minister Mapisa-Nqakula left a thought for the House to ponder on when she said, “I must now ask the question whether or not the House is satisfied that the current resourcing of the Defence Force is consistent with the obligations placed on it by the Constitution.”

This short summary should make this point clear that budget constraints are preventing us from doing so much more than what we would like to do. The tree of ordnance is still dead to us.


Discipline is one area where a defence force cannot compromise. This matter is non-negotiable and there is absolutely no justification for ill-disciplined soldiers. You however need to maintain perspective when you rate the level of discipline over the different spheres of discipline.

We should all be in agreement that the first and foremost and most visible form of discipline is what you see. Unfortunately we live in a sensation driven era that is governed by the holy gospel of social media. The one soldier who will kill his girlfriend in KZN becomes the poster boy for those bound to slaughter the SANDF. Suddenly all soldiers are murderers and should be banned from society. The one air force member who does shopping in her slippers is the epitome of the modern SANDF soldier. I do not deny the individual acts of poor discipline and condemn it with all my heart, but do you really think it is limited to the modern SANDF?

How many of you reading this are sighing a sigh of relief that there were no cell phone cameras and social media when you were young? How many of you would have spent time on the red carpet or under a red doibie or even polishing the red floors of the nearest Detention Barracks (DB) if your adventures were published on social media.

Soldiers have always been naughty, unruly, adventurous, daring, audacious, exploratory, and every other adjective that you can think of applicable to soldiers. Pushing the barriers to see how far they can go without getting caught. DB’s were full of those who actually got caught. The Military Disciplinary Code was drafted and approved to manage the conduct of conscripts. There are limitations on the rights of soldiers, but the Defence Act is subject to the constitution.

How many of you would have allowed a beating by a Corporal or uncontrolled corrective training if you had a better understanding of your rights. The constitution is what mandates us and that is what we are here for, to protect it. To do things the way in which it was done in the past, because it yielded perceived better results is like saying do away with cars, bring back horses, because there were fewer accidents.

Ill-discipline is an abomination and I condemn it with the deepest part of my soul and being, but do not judge or throw stones if you are or have been at fault.

Functional discipline is something that we can talk for days on end. We have our problems and most of it is capacity and skills-transfer related. We had a huge exodus of skilled and knowledgeable soldiers from the Defence Force and it continuing today still. If you consider the fact that if 100 members terminate their service, through old age, per year, we lose on average 4000 years of military knowledge and experience. Sometimes the knowledge is transferred, but in many cases especially in the logistical environment you just can’t substitute experience. The mastering of the computerised systems does not mean that you have mastered the principles of logistical management in the defence force. This matter I am going to let hang for now. The Chief of the SA National Defence Force, Gen Solly Shoke, said the type of defence force that the leadership visualises requires the necessary funding.

Combat discipline is a contestable subject. It is difficult to rate the level of combat discipline for conventional warfare if your defence force is utilised in peace operations. You will not be able to judge the combat discipline of bushwar veterans of yesteryear with peace operations of the modern SANDF soldier and vice versa. You need to compare apples with apples, but…there is always a but. Do yourself a favour and go and read the paper by Helmoed Heitman on the battle of Bangui. I would like to quote the preamble to this paper: “From just after 16:00 on Friday 22 March until about 21:00 on Sunday 24 March, about 200 South African soldiers fought a series of running battles outside Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR) against a well-armed Seleka force of several thousand, that has since been estimated at between 4 000 and 7 000. And they did so while the CAR Army (Forces armées centraficaines or FACA) evaporated around them and the peacekeeping forces of Multinational Force of Central Africa (FOMAC) disappeared from the scene. In the process the soldiers fired off more than 12 000 rounds of 12.7 mm machinegun ammunition, more than 60 rockets from 107 mm rocket launchers and 200 bombs from 81 mm mortars, and thousands of rounds from 7.62 mm machineguns and 5.56 mm rifles. In all, they would appear to have used some ten tons of assorted munitions. In all, the fight cost 13 killed and 27 wounded. But the force retained its cohesion throughout and was able to fall back from two separate engagement areas to its base and to hold it until their attackers gave up trying to overrun them, offering, instead, a ceasefire and disengagement. By then they had suffered as many as 800 killed, according to the estimates of officers with considerable operational experience and by some NGOs in the country. Later reports say several hundred more may have died of wounds due to a lack of medical support. It helps to put those figures in perspective: the British Army’s 3rd Parachute Battalion regards its deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand province for six months in 2006 as a hard fought deployment. Over that time, its battle group of 1 200 soldiers, lost 15 killed and 46 wounded, and fired 479 000 rounds of ammunition, all the while supported by light tanks, artillery, attack helicopters, Hercules gunships and fighters. This was one of the hardest-fought actions that the South African military have ever experienced, and the soldiers fought well, even outstandingly. That is not only reflected in the fact that this small force retained cohesion to the end of the action, but also in the casualties that it inflicted on its opponents. Their valour was underlined by the French force at Bangui airport when it held a formal parade to bid farewell to those who had fallen. South Africa has since withdrawn its small force in the CAR following the fall of its government. The South African government had wanted to relieve the troops and deploy a stronger force to stabilise the situation pending a decision by the African Union, but the French commander at Bangui airport, the only viable airport for such a force rotation, had no mandate to permit the deployment of new South African forces through the airport.”

You judge for yourself. Helmoed Heitman has worked with the non-statutory forces and political parties in the run up to the 1996 Defence White paper, and worked on the 1998 Defence Review. He has since worked with the SA Army Vision 2020 team, advised the Navy on the potential of large multi-role vessels and developed a new wing structure for the Air Force. He served on the Resource Group of the Defence Review Committee from 2011 to 2013. Helmoed holds Economics and Public Administration degrees from the University of Cape Town, an MA in War Studies from King’s College, University of London and Management Diplomas from Stellenbosch University’s Graduate School of Business, and passed the junior staff course of the SA Army College. He has written six books and three minor titles on defence matters, drawn up more than 120 papers and studies, presented papers at more than sixty defence conferences and published more than 500 articles on defence matters in defence journals, other periodicals and newspapers in South Africa and in other countries. For me his opinion counts.

We do not have the mandate to take over the policing of the citizens of South Africa nor do we want to again. We would like to serve the citizens of South Africa like we are doing on the Vaal River project, or during the Knysna Fires and other disasters. I would like the SANDF to be the employer of choice. I would like government to afford us the money to assist in the unemployment struggle to train young men and woman with transferable skills based on a disciplined military background. This is my personal dream and not the vision of the SANDF.


I come from a military family. My father retired as a WO1 from the Defence Force having served in the Union Defence Force and SADF. My mother worked as a civilian at Army HQ. My brother did his national service and spent 18 months on the border. I myself was a National Serviceman and then joined and am still serving. My sister is a chef in the SA Army, so my commitment is historical and real.

Both my brothers-in-law served their time on the border, one as a SAI soldier and the other as a MP. I know that they will forgive me for using them and my brother as reference. I respect each and every member of the armed forces of South Africa, whether statutory or non-statutory. Each and every one of us have a story to tell. No two experiences of deployments, basic training, junior leaders, border duty, operations, contact and mischief will be the same. We may have shared experiences, but the way in which we remember or reflect differs.

The experience of a conscript and a career soldier are worlds apart. The point of reference for most members commenting on the activities of the SANDF are limited to the two years national service or limited military experience, there are of course the exceptions. For you, your experiences were limited to your buddies, your section, your platoon, your unit and sometimes a battle group. The defence force is however much bigger than that and you need to accept the fact that you do not know everything about the workings of a defence force (neither do I claim I do).

You need to acknowledge that times have changed and to constantly criticize those who remained behind to serve will just put a wedge between you and I and that I do not want.

You need to acknowledge the budget constraints and the impact that have on the defence force that you and I want to have. South Africa is a peaceful country that lives in harmony with its neighbours. However, the unpredictability of the strategic environment, together with emerging conflict trends on the African continent, requires us to maintain a credible military force as a deterrent. Some of the countries in the Southern African Development Community are injecting financial resources to build their military capacity through acquisition programmes. Conversely, South Africa is on a path of reduced Defence expenditure, placing serious constraints on the effective and efficient execution of the Defence mandate and subsequent governance and accountability arrangements.

Defence should remain mandate driven, and not budget driven as is currently the case.

The Defence Force is expected to defend and protect South Africa and to rapidly intervene during crises on the continent. It must sustain Peace Support Operations and continuously secure the land borders, the full maritime zone and the airspace. The Defence Force is also expected to support other departments, when required, and to execute our many international obligations. This level of ambition is not sustainable on the current level of funding.

In terms of forward planning, we must assume that Defence will remain on this downward funding trajectory for the foreseeable future. Should this be the case, urgent steps will have to be taken to stabilise the Department and create a more sustainable defence capability, albeit at a lower-level than was envisaged in the 1998 and 2015 Defence Reviews.

I hope that what I have penned here will give you some insight to what we are faced with now. I have known military plenty and I now know military famine and if I had a choice I would choose military plenty, but if I have a choice between no military and military famine, I will choose famine a million times over.

The annual pre-Covid AFD, although a costly affair on a shrinking budget; is a way to honour those who served and who are currently serving. It also shows the public what we have and that it is maintained with what little we have, but most of all it should be I sign of hope to all South Africans, as a fully integrated force that looks beyond the colour of your skin, your religion, your background or sexual orientation, but the common goal. That to be the guardian on Zions wall that allow you the comfort of sleeping in a well-protected South Africa.

I want to reiterate that this is my personal opinion and should not be construed as the official standpoint of the SANDF, this is also written without any prejudice to any organisation whatsoever.

Yours sincerely.

Lt Col Stephan Henrico

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