The reported incidents of unlawful acts by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) since its deployment in support of the police to deal with Covid-19 are regrettable, said Thabang Makwetla, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, on Sunday.
“They have easily detracted the observer from the overwhelmingly vital role played by the military in the fight against the coronavirus and the enormous value of this deployment to the country. The commander-in-chief, [President Cyril Ramaphosa] ordered the troops to ‘go to our people and give them hope’ because this is a grim moment indeed,” Makwetla said.
On 26 March, Ramaphosa ordered that a 21-day lockdown be implemented until 16 April. As part of these measures, the SANDF was deployed to assist police in ensuring residents stay indoors, except to buy food and medication or to get medical attention.
News24 reported that concerns had been raised about the conduct of the police and the SANDF following claims of abuse, heavy-handed policing and the use of excessive force.
“Maybe I should also say that I am here not referring to the creative ways some of the soldiers devised to remove from the streets the delinquent residents who were wilfully undermining the lockdown regulations. Many of them are unemployed and unlikely to have the money to pay the fines for their transgressions, thereby further contributing to the clogging of our already overcrowded correctional centres across the country,” Makwetla said.
Law enforcement but one element of SANDF’s role
“The law enforcement role of the SANDF alongside the police in the fight against the coronavirus pestilence is but one element of a much bigger and elaborate campaign. In the broader scheme of things, I believe disaster management and the efficiency of government in responding to crisis moments will be spoken of in terms of before Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 practices, not only in South Africa but the world over going forward. Intrinsically linked to this dialogue, necessarily will be a need for a re-look in perspective of the resourcing of South Africa’s defence function overall.”
Makwetla said Ramaphosa’s order to deploy the SANDF “could not have come at a more difficult moment”.
“The financial woes of the defence department, and the consequences thereof, are common knowledge, not only to those with interest in military organisations but to all and sundry, industry workers and soldiers alike.”
She said the SANDF consisted of four arms-of-service: the Army (landward force), the Air Force, the Navy and the South African Military Health Services (SAMHS – the medical wing of the SANDF).
“In this emergency, all the arms of service of the SANDF are, without exception, deployed, and others are on standby.
“Starting with the Army: more than three battalions of troops are on the ground covering all nine provinces, enforcing the regulations and ensuring the restriction of movement in communities. The Army deployment has also included the tightening of border security to limit cross-boundary movement. Over and above these activities, the Army is also deploying other assets such as the water purification and bottling system to alleviate water shortages at different places,” Makwetla said.
She said the Air Force was deployed to expedite “quick reaction force”, and any other air-freight emergencies in support of medical services.
Makwetla went on to explain that the Navy has placed on standby an Offshore Patrol Vessel capability for humanitarian aid in Simon’s Town and Durban.
“It has also provided a standby logistics support capability between our sea-ports.
“SAMHS is providing operational medical support to the Department of Health in the form of different categories of health workers, as it has done in the management of the Polokwane quarantine facility, where the students from Wuhan, China, were placed under observation. It is also responsible for the disinfection and decontamination of facilities and mobile platforms which will be exposed to possible viral contamination.”
Efforts overshadowed by ‘skop-skiet-donner’ condemnation
She said the Logistics Division is tasked to prepare military units to be utilised as isolation and quarantine sites.
“The enormous resources deployed by the military, both men and material, in defence of ‘the life of the nation’, are unfortunately overshadowed by the ‘skop-skiet-en-donner’ condemnation of the indiscretions of a few troopers on the ground.”
The deputy minister said the mission to Wuhan by members of the SANDF was not the first time or the only time it has sprung into action to save lives in such desperate moments.
“As a people, we are fortunate not to inhabit a country which is prone to natural disasters. Our country does not lie along the earth’s fault-lines of earthquakes, etc. However, we have recently witnessed an increased frequency of extreme climatic conditions; of cyclones in our neighbouring countries, and tornadoes, veld fires and flooding in parts of our country. Extreme drought conditions have lately occurred in unusual regions of the country. There is growing anxiety that this pattern of things is likely to increase on account of the effects of global warming.
‘Justifiably ill-prepared for disaster management’
“The threats to the well-being of nations today are forever becoming complex. In countries that are prone to national disasters it is the norm that disaster management as a government function is anchored within their military establishments. Disaster management has dedicated arms of service in their militaries, with specially prepared troops, armed with systems and technologies relevant to disaster requirements. The collateral utilisation of the military to battle disasters is convenient and does make a significant difference. However, performed as a side issue by soldiers, disaster management will always be a tasking that the military comes into justifiably ill-prepared.”
Makwetla said it was “common knowledge” that South Africa’s defence budget stands at a mere 0.93% of the gross domestic product, way below the global average of 2% and of the SADC region member countries.
“These, of course, are not just statistics. The figures speak to the untenable state of affairs in our defence establishment as commented upon many times before by the Minister of Defence and members of the parliamentary portfolio committee on defence.
“This threat is as a result, correctly so, of our sustained political programme over the past 25 years to prioritise the socioeconomic upliftment of the circumstances of South Africa’s previously neglected black populace. However, the grim economic forecast of what lies ahead tells us that there is never an ideal moment to take out guarantees for the protection of the millions of lives in our communities which the state is responsible for.
“Today it is Covid-19, tomorrow is another ambush that will be totally puzzling, the way all ambushes always are. But the lives of our citizens, as the constitution enjoins us, must at all times be protected. And the SANDF must always be fit for purpose,” Makwetla added.