Since the advent of Covid-19, chairperson of the African Union and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has demonstrated unparalleled thought leadership, particularly absent on the continent over the past decades. His critical contribution has been most evident in the social-engineering project towards his country’s stark socioeconomic inequalities through the innovative employment of the armed forces.
This is a lesson that must not be lost in Africa: each country is currently teetering on a strategic precipice of deciding how best to employ existing institutional capacities to respond to Covid-19 threats. The often unappreciated potential that lies in the organised military structures available to each of the AU’s 54 member states must not be overlooked.
The deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), forms part of the implementation of the R500-billion Covid-19 economic-relief package launched by the presidency. On April 21, Ramaphosa advised the speaker of Parliament that, in terms of the state of national disaster provisions, he was employing more than 73 180 SANDF members, at a cost of R4.6-billion, to be in the field until June 26 . The purpose of harnessing what has been described as “the entire army” — this component joining the 2 820 initial deployment of 2 820 members on March 23 — remained the same: to support the South African Police Services (SAPS), but with added, clearly defined responsibilities.
Furthermore, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula indicated that there was a pressing need for the employment, in the light of the scientific modelling indicating rising numbers of infections and a likely exponential growth curve between August and September. Significantly, the South African administration and governing party has consulted and kept the confidence of all political parties represented in Parliament, as well as civil-society representatives including churches, the media and traditional and customary leaders.
Factors informing government policy
Three critical factors have informed the government’s strategic response. The first is the identification of Covid-19 hotspots in the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal; the Eastern Cape; and the Free State and on the other. This was ascertained from a high testing rate, with almost 200 000 people tested to date.
The second factor is that the government was beginning to feel confident about how the increased public-health-system capacity would handle future cases. The public-health system has received deliveries of large numbers of ventilators and protective medical clothing. There has also been an increase in the number of health workers, including a contingent of medics from Cuba, assuring the state of relative adequate capacity.
Finally, local governments had come to a standstill during the lockdown, unable to collect levies and taxes. In the stimulus package, the government allocated R20-billion towards local governments to cushion their finances. More generally, given the broader Covid-19 relief thrust of providing infrastructure, local governments will not have the nimbleness and immediate effects sought in the unfolding but unstated social engineering project. Nonetheless, taking these factors into account, it is clear the South African government has an exact picture of the nature and extent of the required interventions.
There are also several research and manufacturing processes being fast-tracked to increase capacity. For example, the availability of ventilators has challenged most governments around the world; locally, a joint government and business initiative — the National Ventilator Project — has been signed off. This aims to manufacture 10 000 non-invasive ventilators in local factories by the end of June. The design is expected to be quite simple and able to operate without electricity. There are several such initiatives that, combined, will provide the public-health system with capacity in the short to medium term.
And here lies the seed that, if nurtured by the existing African Peace and Security Architecture, will change the face of the continent and the lives of its most impoverished inhabitants in the post COVID-19 era.
Using an ‘entire army’ to help the most marginalised people
In his statement, Ramaphosa announced the employment of the armed forces as an intervention towards addressing the social weakness that have continued since the advent of democracy in 1994. The mandate and purpose of the SANDF was to:
- Support the SAPS;
- Provide public-health support through the South African Military Health Service (SAMHS); and
- Build infrastructure, in particular water, sanitation, clinics, and pedestrian bridges in isolated areas that remained cut off, with residents unable to access medical and other services.
Defining the scientific context
Mapisa-Nqakula offered further details of military strategy during a press conference the day after Ramaphosa’s announcement, saying that the SANDF would be enforcing the lockdown in support of the police and calling on soldiers not to violate human rights. She also announced that the army was ready to transport bodies to mortuaries if that became a necessity.
Furthermore, the SAMHS would also look after soldiers who might become infected during the course of their duties, she said. In addition, SAMHS doctors, psychologists and other medical personnel would be available to work under the guidance of the health department. “If there is any mass screening to be done, we are hoping that the department of health will rely on the skill of medical professionals of the SANDF,” Mapisa-Nqakula said.
The uniquely structured SANDF, organised around five corps, including that of the SAMHS, now finds itself particularly suited to offer internal solutions to the protracted political, socioeconomic and security challenges required in the fundamental restructuring of these facets in the Covid-19 era and its aftermath.
Next, SANDF members have been tasked to undertake construction of roads and pedestrian bridges, in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape for people to cross rivers to get to better schools and clinics to access medical help and other government services.
Stated differently: a small percentage of the SANDF will be policing the enforcement of the movement restrictions in support of SAPS in the identified hotspots; the rest of the “entire army” will be establishing the social-cohesion bridges among the most remote and impoverished people. This is an effort to include them in the new mainstream economy, with the aim of medium- to long-term stabilisation, peace and development.
Learning from a previous SANDF intervention
From October 2018 to January 2020 South Africa employed a rotational 500 contingent of South African Army Engineers to resuscitate the complex 2 600km Vaal Triangle river system & wastewater management that had need attention since the 1970s. In 2008, concerted attempts were made to fix it, but after a decade or so, it collapsed, leaving raw sewage running in the streets of several towns and cities; claims of corruption in its wake, and with 44 power stations along the system dysfunctional.
Eventually, in October 2018, it was agreed to approach the SANDF to help and that treasure would provide a budget of R641-million, to be managed by the department of water and sanitation. A special, integrated team of 500 personnel, comprising engineers, civil architects, plumbers, builders, carpenters, members the SAHMS and other artisans were able to resuscitate the massive infrastructure project.
This included cleaning the Vaal River system, which had become badly polluted by the direct discharge of waste and other industrial chemicals. It also included refurbishment, reinstalling 29 substations of the original 44 and repairing other infrastructure that had become victim to corruption, court injunctions, criminal vandalism and the absence of central control, resulting in a threat to the lives of millions of citizens. In January 2020, the SANDF officially handed over the completed project to the East Rand Water Care Company and moved back to their barracks.
As we can can witness, the lessons learnt in the execution of this project by the SANDF were not lost on the government. In dealing with the Vaal Triangle challenge, the actual threat was the dire condition of its communities and an interprovincial leadership who were always in contradiction with each other. This resulted in a lack of focus and capacity to attend to aspects of water and sanitation that would improve the living standards of thousands of households. Bringing in the SANDF enabled the government to address this issue.
Repurposing the African Peace and Security Architecture
The AU protocol on the African Peace and Security Architecture provides the most comprehensive, continental threat-response strategy. It operates in a cascading manner through its subregional structures of North, Central, West, East and Southern Africa. The framework is “built around structures, objectives, principles and values, as well as decision-making processes relating to the prevention, management and resolution of crises and conflicts, post-conflict reconstruction and development” since its adoption in July 2002 in Durban.
Significantly, the African Peace and Security Architecture seeks to “promote sustainable democratic practices, good governance and respect for human rights, particularly in contexts of disaster management”, dimensions that resonate with the current continental reaction. They can be enhanced by adherence to an innovative modelling to achieve greater positive effects.
Given the example that we have seen under the thought leadership demonstrated by current AU chairperson Ramaphosa in the creative use of an “entire army” to enhance social cohesion in the face of deep and protracted class and regional inequities, all within constitutional sensibilities, the repurposing of the African Peace and Security Architecture is non-negotiable. The alternative is finding African armies clashing with communities in informal settlements, as we have witnessed in Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya and even South Africa.