Let down: Like the South African troops killed in the Central African Republic in 2013
South Africa’s peacekeepers are being short-changed — and potentially put at risk — by an arrangement that channels vital peacekeeping funds away from the military to the
South Africa deploys peacekeepers in several African countries, but they operate on a shoestring budget. Things are so bad that the army usually relies on vehicles and equipment left to them in their country of operation, and the air force must regularly must charter aircraft to ferry men and heavy equipment.
Nowhere was the severe funding shortfall more apparent than during the 2013 Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic, where 15 soldiers died fending off a rebel offensive. The troops lacked heavy weapons and the capacity for reinforcements, and evacuating the wounded was left to chartered aircraft.
With what little equipment and support they had, it was a testament to the military’s can-do attitude that more troops did not come back in body bags.
The funding problem has many roots. One of the largest issues lies in the losses incurred by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) every time it deploys peacekeeping missions abroad.
Although the United Nations compensates every troop-contributing country, in South Africa’s case the money returned rarely finds its way back to the defence force — leaving the SANDF’s overstretched budget bearing all additional costs associated with its peacekeeping effort.
This has real consequences. Last year the South African mission to Darfur, an 800-odd force providing security to civilians in Sudan, was ended. Cost was one major problem. The military could not afford the upkeep of its soldiers, no matter how noble the mission — despite the fact that the UN was reimbursing South Africa for its efforts.
It is also evident in South Africa’s major peacekeeping deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the constant presence of a South African battalion has earned widespread praise for their performance as part of the pioneering Force Intervention Brigade — yet they remain chronically underfunded and underequipped.
If the military is not getting the UN’s reimbursements, where is the money going?
In a nutshell, to everyone else in the government. The UN compensation is funnelled back to the treasury’s national revenue fund. Compensation for danger pay, food, uniforms, accommodation, petrol, repairs and all the other logistics of putting South African boots on the ground abroad goes straight to the treasury. If the refunds from the UN were directed from treasury to defence, a major money sink in the military could be plugged.
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula acknowledged the discord between treasury and the department in her post-budget speech media briefing in late May. “Over the years, the money reimbursed by the UN would go to the national fiscus. So every other government department would have access to that money.”
Mapisa-Nqakula made another telling point. “Sometimes it’s a challenge of the national fiscus, but also at times people take decisions because they don’t want to understand,” she said.
This can be interpreted as a veiled criticism of treasury, and its failure to cater adequately for the defence force — a stance that harks back to the dark days of the arms deal scandal, but risks endangering South African soldiers’ lives today.
The tensions between the defence department and treasury leave the military’s leaders in a strategic Catch-22.
On the one hand, commanders are coerced into agreeing to ill-conceived deployments abroad to justify their budgetary relevance each financial year. On the other hand, they receive no immediate funding from treasury when the UN pays South Africa back. The money is instead poured into the national kitty, leaving the defence force worse off than before.
This is not to say the defence department is entirely blameless. The department is stubbornly pushing through the defence review, a legislative behemoth aimed at modernising and revamping the defence force. Although it may be a clear and well-argued policy document, the review comes with a hefty price tag in the form of increases to the defence budget.
In the current South African economic climate such increases, from roughly 1.2% of South Africa’s gross domestic product to 2%, are hopelessly out of touch with reality. As such the defence force is stuck with an expansive and expensive future strategy, including peacekeeping missions abroad at great cost, but is unlikely to have the budget to execute it properly.
When questioned on what the plan B was if the defence review was not funded, Mapisa-Nqakula has stressed the need to convince treasury to fund plan A, or the review as it stands.
Downsizing the military is not an option, evidently. On the contrary, a proposal to delink soldiers’ salaries from their ranks was suggested this month, costing a possible extra R1.4-billion. Treasury, and South Africans, must evidently find the money out of thin air.
In the interim, South Africa’s soldiers based in the jungles surrounding northern and eastern DRC, and wherever else they may be deployed as peacekeepers, remain hopelessly underfunded and underequipped for the conflicts they are trying to contain.
John Stupart is the editor of the African Defence Review