Bantu Holomisa’s address at the Colloquium on Civil Military Relations in South Africa
• Honourable Chairperson
• Honourable Minister and Deputy Minister
• Secretary of Defence
• Fellow Committee Members and Parliamentarians
• Ladies and gentlemen
1. Thank you
Allow me this opportunity to thank our Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, Mr VC Xaba, MP, for the opportunity to address you today.
In a time of war, the politics and society are willing to accept that the military has a just cause and its own set of values and standards, because we believe that they act for a higher good.
The majority of the populace is happy to believe that the military is acting on its behalf and that it will do so with honour and justness.
We have two familiar examples in our history where this is true: The South African Border War and the Armed Struggle.
In both cases “the people”, or at the very least, certain sections of society, approved of, and supported and believed in, those armed actions.
However, upon the dawn of true democracy, government was challenged by the necessity to make a paradigm shift, in which the South African National Defence Force simultaneously had to build an institution that is transparent, accountable and representative of the societal demographics.
In addition, the former statutory and non-statutory armies had to be moulded into one united force.
Both tall orders and as I discovered in my work with the Defence Force Service Commission, we, after 25 years, are still struggling to get right.
As a quick example, many defence force men and women, who came from the various former armed forces retained their force numbers. There is no uniformity in the system and it has led to discrimination in promotions.
We can, however, all agree that there must be a balance between having a well-funded and strong military to defend the state’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and well-being of its citizenry, and one that is subservient enough to not threaten the state and the people.
But most of all, we need to guard against a military that is abused by government to quash dissent and destroy human rights and freedoms.
We just have to look at our own history to understand how serious such a situation can be.
3. Parliament and laws keep us from running the risk of repeating the past
The relationship between the military and civil society is sometimes a fickle one. On the continent, it has happened that the people look to the military to almost “save” them from the abuse of severe governmental corruption and looting of resources.
In South Africa, there has for good reason, been a marked constitutional shift from “doing things the old way”, where military decisions were taken at security council level without consulting parliament. Which, in a certain way, meant that the military held government and the people at ransom.
We can be thankful that our constitution now dictates that parliament has an imperative role to play in terms of monitoring our defence force’s readiness and sanctioning military action should the country be in imminent danger.
Parliament must be kept abreast of the goings-on in the military, such as budget and operational needs, which talks to civilian oversight in its strongest and purest form.
The laws governing the military and defence reviews (1998 and 2012/3) are the tools used to ensure that the civil-military relations in South Africa are healthy, trustable and that this relationship is kept stable and intact.
4. What could the business of the defence force be if we are not at war
Not all threats are what we could traditionally consider the business of a defence force. The role of the defence force is not only to protect our people from outside military threats as, sometimes, the problem arises from within our borders. That is why the military should from time to time work in support of the police.
Serious crime in various guises threaten the internal safety of our citizens and the security of our country.
• There is a form of “economic espionage” where the intellectual property of Denel and Armscor is pillaged.
• South Africans with links to foreign countries make use of our porous borders to fuel the drug trade to where it has become a pandemic.
• Hijacked vehicles find their way across our borders in a matter of hours.
Aside from the obvious role the defence force, for instance, plays in peacekeeping operations and emergency assist in case of natural disasters, it is clear that we need to let our minds go to see where the defence force can also play a meaningful role.
5. Secretary of Defence: is the civilian component inside the department effective?
I want to zone into a very specific mechanism of civilian oversight in terms of the department of defence.
As the system stands, for day-to-day administration and the coordination of strategic processes, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans relies on the Defence Secretariat; which is the civilian component within the department.
The system of having a Secretary of Defence primarily works well in developed countries, which have their own military conscription programmes, which in turn means there is a general understanding of how the military works.
There is therefore a deep appreciation for the basic underpinnings of defence, which are speed, control and discipline. Even so, normally, the person who holds the post of Secretary of Defence has likely studied defence as a profession and is steeped in military culture.
We need to understand that in a country where this is not the case, this leads to tensions.
For instance, during my period of service on the Defence Force Service Commission, many frustrations were registered with us regarding the Secretary of Defence.
On our tours across the country, interacting with the defence professionals and military careerists, the delays in decision-making and implementation was a hot topic.
Commanders reported that they were constantly embarrassed when they were forced to go to the rank and file to try and explain why certain decisions were not yet implemented. This is not military culture.
The Defence Force Service Commission quite often heard of scenarios where the office of the Secretary for Defence was blamed for delays.
It seemed to them that the Secretary spent far too much time outside the country, for whatever reason, and was not preoccupied with making the defence force a well-oiled machine.
We can all agree that the work of our defence force is by its very nature based on its ability and need to make quick decisions and ensure effective implementation.
It is therefore counter-intuitive, that a civilian non-professional would be the lynchpin in this process.
As currently implemented, civilian oversight has evolved into the appointment of civilians in the highest decision-making positions in a manner that undermines the ability of the security forces to manage their operations effectively.
In my view, we need to take a look at the practicality of the current system of civilian oversight in the department of defence.
Do we still need the Secretary of Defence to be an accounting officer?
I personally favour that the commander of the defence force plays this role. Civilian oversight can reside with the office of the minister with constant liaison with parliament. Because, after all, how can the Secretary of Defence play the role of oversight and be the accounting officer? It’s just not common sense.
In addition, it would be good if the defence force leadership could directly indicate their budgetary requirements to National Treasury. This will go a long way in making it an effective force that can serve this country well, and keep us safe.
We can all agree that there is a careful, if not sometimes precarious, balance between the legislature, civil society and the military.
Given our country’s history, it is all the more important that we continue to maintain this balance that we have struck over the past 25 years, but we must also be realistic about what works and what does not.
It is of no use to cling to that which does not work at the expense of our country’s safety and the ability of the defence force to fulfil its constitutional mandate, in particular that “The defence force must be structured and managed as a disciplined military force”.