The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) plans to replace its camouflage fatigues at the cost of between R120-million and R200-million for the army alone. This is despite the fact that it is also facing a budget reduction of R15-billion over the medium-term expenditure framework, with a “devastating impact” on its ability even to maintain its prime mission equipment.
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Yet, the army uniform improvement project and the replacement of the uniforms is considered “critical”, says defence force spokesperson Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi.
According to Mgobozi, the replacement will aid in “restoring the dignity of the army to its rightful glory”. The army will be the first arm to replace its uniforms, even though the idea is for the project to serve the whole defence force. The air force, navy and military health services will be allowed to participate in the replacement programme independently.
Mgobozi says the current camouflage uniform “does not serve its purpose in the areas the army deploys in. A lot of wear also causes the camouflage pattern to fade, while it is no longer blending in with the deployment areas along the country’s borders or in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
The current pattern for uniforms has been in use since 1994, when the previous brown uniforms were replaced. At the time, the replacement was viewed as necessary to provide a modern and fit-for-purpose uniform for the “new” integrated national defence force in light of the negative connotation to the brown ones of the previous dispensation.
One of the reasons for the replacement was that the camouflaged pattern would be registered, so as to allow only members of the defence force to wear it. Since then, several civilians have been prosecuted for wearing the uniforms.
However, Mgobozi said in his response to questions from the Mail & Guardian that even the current “camo” has now been compromised: uniform items are widely for sale on eBay and other e-commerce sites.
“The liquidation of various textile manufacturers led to leftover or undelivered textiles being snatched up by fashion designers and clothing companies [for commercial purposes],” Mgobozi said.
Lastly, the current fit of the uniform is not “female-body-profile friendly”, and the new design will allow for different female body profiles. Even female combat boots will be part of the new uniform.
The Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was roped in to improve the boots. However, it is not only the operational fatigues that will be getting a facelift. The CSIR also had to investigate and propose a new physical training dress to replace the current sportswear.
“The current physical training dress in its entirety lost its practical application. It is movement restrictive, retains perspiration and the size grading of the tracksuit is not conducive,” said Mgobozi.
As such, sportswear manufacturer Puma SA was the only one to submit a proposal for the replacement, from its Forever sports-gear range. Even though the textiles will have to be imported, the manufacturing will be done locally, Mgobozi explained.
At a recent sitting of the army’s senior decision-making body in Potchefstroom, a complete presentation was provided to the generals about the new uniforms. Major General Sandile Hlongwa, chief of army force structures, gave the M&G some insight into the presentation.
Hlongwa said the current camouflage design is “old-fashioned [and] does not cater for the African body profile, and no female camouflage is available”.
Regarding the new sportswear, Hlongwa said the training kit had lost its appeal to the younger-generation soldiers. He added that the modern exercise gear will “make physical training attractive again”.
Hlongwa promised — as was the case when the current camouflage pattern was introduced — that the new digital pattern will be trademarked and registered with copyright for use exclusively by the army and the SANDF.
The army’s uniform will sport a badge depicting the army’s emblem, a pride of lions, on the left sleeve. A pleat on the back of shirts will allow for expansion and ventilation.
The new design will also reinforce the crotch “to ensure the longevity of the pants and add additional protection during helicopter fast-roping”.
The sportswear will consist of a lightweight pair of shorts for men, a sunsuit, stretch pants for women and a sports bra with the lion emblem featured prominently on the chest.
Armscor will present the results of the wearer trials to make recommendations to the army. It will also handle all future tenders and contracts for the manufacturing of the uniforms, said Mgobozi.
Kobus Marais, the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on defence, earlier this year asked Mapisa-Nqakula in a written question in parliament if any improvements to the uniforms are planned.
Mapisa-Nqakula then responded that improved boots would soon be available, after the treasury provided a welcome additional amount to the defence budget for the maintenance of mission-critical equipment.
New olive-drab safari-suit office uniforms for generals and senior officers have just been implemented as well. Yet in her budget speech, Mapisa-Nqakula said: “The ability to maintain main equipment for operations has declined to the point where we need to ask if it is, in fact, viable to continue to throw resources at them.”
It is not clear if the uniforms are considered part of the main equipment rather than armoured vehicles and the like.
Pieter Groenewald, leader of the Freedom Front Plus, said it is inexplicable why the camouflage uniforms have been considered sufficient after some 20 years of peacekeeping operations but now, suddenly, are not any more.
“It is just not affordable to have new uniforms while the military hardware is falling apart,” he said.
Mapisa-Nqakula said the defence force “has a pivotal and unique contribution to ensure stability and security and the confidence to invest in the future of South Africa and the region.
“Strategically, we have now transitioned from being mandate-driven to being funding-driven. I wish to remind this house that defence can only perform to the extent that it is resourced and funded,” she said.
“Against this backdrop, I once again ask of this house to apply its mind and wisdom to the question: What kind of defence force should South Africa have and what can it afford?”