Mr Thabo Mmutle, an African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament who serves on both the Joint Standing Committee on Defence and the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, recently led a debate in the National Assembly on the need for a revised and strengthened regulatory environment to protect the territorial integrity of military bases and associated institutions.
He highlighted how, on several joint oversight visits in the past three years, the two committees observed worrying safety and security lapses at some military bases. “The committees have noted the impact of human settlements in military base areas, notably land invasions of areas adjacent to Wallmansthall base in Tshwane, where the perimeter fence was in a poor condition, water pipes vandalised and electricity cables stolen.
“While we are aware of the sensitivity of the issue of human settlements in South Africa, we are concerned about the security of military bases and the safety of the surrounding communities. It is very dangerous to have people living next to the borders of the fence of the military base where they keep explosives and use dangerous weapons for training. We therefore recommend that the Department of Defence and other relevant departments work together to find an everlasting solution to land invasion around military bases,” said Mr Mmutle.
The committees also noted that several SANDF areas are subject to land claims processes and that by 2021 the Department of Defence was still awaiting the Land Claims Commission to submit the official request for the release of state land to the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI). It was recommended that the department should provide a more detailed breakdown of specific bases and military areas under land claim and the progress on those specific claims.
“The main issue about land claims against SANDF land is that it stalls any development plans for the development and future use of such land. In many cases, military bases are in urgent need of upgrade, but the upgrades cannot happen as the outcome of the land claims process has not been forthcoming,” said Mr Mmutle.
The Democratic Alliance’s Mr Sarel Marais claimed that both the Department of Defence and the SANDF are in a dire situation. “The forever decrease in budget and exacerbating decline in our defence capabilities to defend our territorial integrity is embarrassing and exposes us to exploitation by our adversaries.”
Mr Maris also argued that in its current state, it is unlikely that the SANDF could repel any military threat, considering its vulnerabilities and rapid deterioration in defence readiness. “Our military bases are poorly maintained with dilapidated buildings and broken fences and infrastructure. And the consistent stalemate and blame-shifting between the Department of Defence and the DPWI on who is responsible for the dilapidation is unacceptable. DPWI doesn’t know the importance of our strategic military infrastructure and to prioritise them. These strategic functions must be devolved to the Department of Defence,” Mr Marais said.
Ms Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi of the Economic Freedom Fighters said incompetent leadership at both operational and political levels have failed the military. “We need a complete overhaul of the leadership of our defence at both operational and political. We can’t maintain our own aircraft, we have inadequate infrastructure, our troops are not adequately trained. No amount of budget constraints should expose our country to military risk,” Ms Mkhaliphi said.
She was also concerned by the unauthorised occupation and subletting of military base accommodation, saying this compromised military security and exposed the country to serious security threats.
Mr Narend Singh of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was also worried about budget cuts, which weakened the defence force to the point where it cannot ensure our safety and security.
Reacting to the Members’ concerns, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Ms Thandi Modise acknowledged that there is a lot of dilapidation and poor maintenance. “I want to agree that those problems are real, but I disagree that we have failed to protect South Africa, to train our members.
“MPs can criticise us that we have trained pilots who are unable to get the required flying hours, because of certain reasons, but we are remedying that. You can say most of our prime equipment has not been working. Yes, we have issues with prime equipment. We have had some weapons stolen at Lyttleton; there is a police case. All our armoured vehicles have been repaired,” she explained.
The Minister also told the National Assembly that before 1994 there was in-house capability within the defence force to maintain facilities. However, after 1994 this responsibility was transferred to the Department of Public Works. Defence has now started rebuilding the capabilities of in-house maintenance and has begun talks with DPWI to take back maintenance responsibilities.
The Minister also dismissed suggestions to downsize the defence force, saying this cannot be considered as the dangers on South Africa’s borders are increasing.