Civilians need to oversee South Africa’s defence force

Cabbages and Kings is a novel written more than a century ago by O Henry, in which he coins the phrase “banana republic”. Originally, the phrase described a country controlled by foreign companies that exploit its natural resources and the working class. Over the years, it has developed to mean any country that is led by corrupt and callous powermongers. They use state institutions to remain in power, often to the detriment of the electorate.  

This book crossed my mind while I was reflecting on the much-publicised ANC junket to Zimbabwe. South Africa’s northern neighbour has become a perfect picture, albeit grotesque, of what South Africa could become under an unchecked ANC administration. A once proud and relatively prosperous country is now on the edge of the economic precipice caused by morally bankrupt and oppressive leaders.

Two high-level meetings within a month mean there is urgency for Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa. He leads a country and is desperate to quell the rebellion against his government. Despite his dismal position, he is a powerful man, able to summon the ANC and the South African government to his backyard.

Mnangagwa achieves this by largely guilt-tripping the ANC about the support Zanu-PF and Zimbabwean government provided during the struggle against apartheid. At the same time, Mnangagwa, a wily politician, surely knows South Africa can ill afford a full-blown political crisis on its doorstep.

It is well known that in the Zanu-PF world, there is no difference between state and party. So one has to ask, what is it that the ANC can offer Zanu-PF that the South African government cannot? Summoning the ANC, only to have his cronies publicly show it the middle finger, seems to be a ploy by the cunning crocodile, as Mnangagwa is nicknamed, to demoralise those rebelling against his tyrannical rule. Opposition parties and the suffering people were probably hopeful the ANC and its government would come to their rescue.


In the process, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, minister of defence and military veterans, presented herself as a Mother Teresa who avails state resources to ANC members Nomvula Mokonyane, Tony Yengeni, Lindiwe Zulu and Ace Magashule by availing a jet to ferry them to the ZanuPF meeting across the border, in violation of the country’s lockdown regulations. This was also a clear case of abuse of state resources by those in charge.

But she is not doing this for the first time. Mapisa-Nqakula is so benevolent that she cannot help but assist people in and out of the country. Last year, the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen went so far as to call her a human trafficker in Parliament.

When Robert Mugabe got rid of Mnangagwa, he was reportedly airlifted to South Africa. Having served as minister of defence, he was Mapisa-Nqakula’s counterpart.  It is plausible that he would turn to her for assistance. No wonder some analysts believe the 2017 Zimbabwe coup would not have happened without Pretoria’s knowledge.

The other incidents under her watch include the infamous Gupta plane landing at Waterkloof and the departure through Waterkloof of former Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir out of South Africa, despite a court ruling that he should not leave the country. There were two pending warrants from the international criminal court for his arrest. Mapisa-Nqakula also brought her son’s girlfriend illegally into the country using a military jet.

The minister seems to think the defence force aircraft is her toy and she can play with it whenever she wants. Speaking to eNCA, her spokesperson, Siphiwe Dlamini, said because of the difficulties of travelling occasioned by lockdown restrictions, the minister “took it upon herself that she would take the delegation in her aircraft”. It may have been a Freudian slip, but it is telling. Minister, it is state property. Not yours.

Mapisa-Nqakula’s military portfolio suits her penchant for “smuggling” people. Most of the department’s activities take place away from the glare of the media. This is necessary to some extent because defence is our last barricade against external enemy forces, be they coming through air, land, sea or cyberspace.

Just like most military agencies around the world, they find civilian accountability an irritation. In South Africa, their dislike is so strong that the army generals approached President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni with a strange proposal. They wanted their own special rules allowing them to procure from whoever they want. Ramaphosa and Mboweni rightly shooed them away.

The minister would do well by arresting her enthusiasm to break the law and focus first on the many men and women who, out of sheer patriotism, risk their lives in defence of this country and its strategic interests elsewhere.

Calls for honest leadership and transparency, should be extended to Mapisa-Nqakula and her domain. The last thing we need as a country, in addition to the problems we have, is an overtly ill-disciplined military that could accelerate our country’s irreversible descent into a banana republic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Solomon Makgale
Solomon Makgale is an independent communications consultant working in sectors such as listed property, energy, FMGC, aviation and financial services

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