May 2012 Commentary

The New Kid on the Block

by J. L. Granatstein

The Republic of South Africa is the strongest nation in Africa, the only one that has—more or less successfully—integrated its black and white citizens. As I discovered on a  visit this month, many South Africans, both black and white, believe that they have the makings of a great power, and with a population of 50 million and great natural resources, they may be right. Moreover, since December 2010 they have been linked with Brazil, Russia, India, and China in what is now called BRICS, the grouping of the most powerful rising (and disaffected) nations. In other words, South Africa, the new kid on the global block, matters simply because it believes that it does. BRICS is no military alliance yet, and Pretoria is really included only to give Africa some representation, but with Russia and China experienced at gaining (and losing) empires, the grouping might someday think it is entitled to run the world.
Yet, paradoxically, South Africa is a nation without enemies. Only weak neighbours sit on its borders, and there are no threats other than refugees trying to flee Mugabe's Zimbabwe and poaching Iberian fishing trawlers. Nonetheless, South Africa's National Defence Force numbers 78,000 regulars and absorbs upwards of 1.2 percent of the national budget.
Yes, South Africa has an enormous coast line, stretching from Namibia on the South Atlantic to Mozambique on the Indian Ocean, but the government has not provided its Navy with much with which to protect it. Its main base located at pretty 18th Century Simon's Town, the Navy is tiny with only four high quality fighting ships. Horatio Nelson visited Simon's Town in 1776 as a midshipman, but the "Nelson touch" is not much apparent now. The four handsome frigates, purchased from Germany eight years ago, cost a bundle, so much so that a huge scandal erupted over the price tag, and there is a court case whose plaintiffs are demanding that the ships be returned--and the money too. As it is, the frigates have been hard used and poorly maintained and already are said to need a major refit. Most capable navies do their refits after fifteen to twenty years.
The Air Force, which in the old days flew Mirage fighters and Canberra bombers, now is small and desperately short of pilots and technical personnel. It has a squadron of Swedish-designed fighter jets and some attack helicopters, transports, and other aircraft, but it is not really fit for operations of a sustained kind.
The Army is more interesting still. After 1994, major efforts took place to integrate the old and new, the regulars and the guerrillas. The first ANC cadres had been trained in the Warsaw Pact nations; the younger were bush fighters; and there were the inevitable tensions, in addition to those created among the various fighting organizations by skillful plotting by the white government. There were more still with the white regulars, of course, and almost twenty years later, some tensions are still said to persist.
Now the pre-1994 old soldiers are retiring, swelling the pension rolls (into which the ANC guerillas who also draw pensions did not pay), and making it much more difficult to find the money to replace aging equipment. Armoured vehicles are few and in bad repair, radars on the borders operate spasmodically, thousands of soldiers and officers are old, unfit, and hangers-on, and only one much understrength brigade is said to be capable of operations. A big arms deal is in the works, but there is opposition to raising the military budget when so many domestic needs continue to cry out for improvement, not least the appalling shanty towns of the "townships" around Johannesburg, Cape Town, and other cities where so many blacks live in squalour.
Complicating matters further is HIV-AIDS. As many as 35 to 50 percent of the soldiers are said to be infected, and this likely compounds the reported ill-discipline in army units. South Africa sends peacekeepers around the African continent (and Canadian trainers have worked with police and helped with peacekeeping training), and while they have done good work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Sudan, there has almost certainly been continued spreading of the AIDS virus.
Unlike Russia, India, and China, Pretoria has given up the nuclear weapons it developed under the old apartheid regime. Nonetheless, it clings to the enriched nuclear materials from these weapons, despite strong and continuing American pressure to surrender them. The South African Navy has been conducting some small familiarization exercises with the Brazilian and Indian navies, but for now, at least, it remains a far weaker player than its new partners. If a future government someday decides to resurrect its nuclear weapons, however, that could change, and not for the better. The new kid on the block might yet develop its muscles.
J.L. Granatstein is a Senior Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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