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Post-apartheid SA military “lost in transition and transformation"
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 10/03/2020

​​​​​​​In 1994, the South African Defence Force merged with the armed forces of anti-apartheid organisations like the African National's Congress' Umkhonto we Sizwe, creating the newly formed South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Yet, while it has transformed over the years to more closely align itself to the democratic values of the country and has adapted to a new security, political and social environment, it faces many new challenges. Amongst them is the ability to respond successfully to a different mission focus, which in turn affects force procurement, preparation, employment and sustainability.

This is according to Prof Lindy Heinecken, the country's leading sociologist on the military, who has consolidated over 30 years of teaching experience and research on the military into a book titled South Africa's Post-Apartheid Military – Lost in transition and transformation.

Heinecken is based in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at Stellenbosch University, which is one of the few sociology departments in South Africa to do research in military sociology. Her work in this particular research field has also earned her certification by the ISA Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology as a registered Certified Sociological Practitioner. She serves on the Council of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society (USA), and is President of the International Sociological Association's (ISA) Armed Forces and Conflict Resolution Research Committee. 

Other than her own research, Heinecken also draws on interviews with key academics and politicians focused on defence issues, and military practitioners for this book.

“While the newly formed military focused on aligning itself with the country's democratic values, it did not focus on the transformation of the military itself. The transformation that has taken place has been a political, social and cultural transformation, rather than an organisational transformation," says Heinecken. 

“At this point in time, it is really important that the military starts looking at organisational transformation as the threat that South Africa faces today is a very different kind of threat.  The SANDF is trained in warfare and not for the roles they have to play or the functions they have to fulfill with regards to peacekeeping, humanitarian aid deployment, and public law and order maintenance today. It is also not structured to deal with the increase in terrorist threats we are seeing in countries across the world."

A case in point, and a topic Heinecken addresses in her work, is the recent deployment of the military to the Cape Flats to deal with escalating gang violence in the neighbourhoods that make up this area.

“We saw what happened when the military started interacting with the community. The interaction was in a confrontational and authoritarian manner which does not build trust."

However, this is not surprising considering that this is exactly how soldiers within the military are expected to deal with threats during warfare. 

“Using your military internally to address social problems like gangsterism or escalating crime is a last resort, because we need to look at other options of dealing with these types of issues first. We cannot deal with these issues as a security problem when there are deeper social ills that lead to gangsterism. The military can stabilise a situation sufficiently to help communities rebuild social cohesion in order for these issues to be addressed, but there is always the fear that by using the military consistently and for the long term, it will lead to the remilitarisation of society, which means more and more of your resources are pumped into the military instead of being used to address other socio-economic concerns," explains Heinecken. 

Another problem in these types of situations, says Heinecken, is that the SANDF has less than 300 troops on the ground on the Cape Flats and they are not used to performing civilian policing duties. 

“The reasons for this is because the SANDF is not structured, well-funded or trained to perform these specific functions. Clearly as internal vulnerabilities in South Africa increases, there will be a growing demand for the military to be deployed internally to fill police incompetence," says Heinecken.

“Insufficient public debates about these issues and understanding of the state of the SANDF, is why I think this book is timely. It addresses how we can use our military more effectively with regards to the security threats we face internally and externally."

While more of a scholarly work, Heinecken's book has been written in such a manner that academics, policy makers and military practitioners are able to easily engage with the content.

Other chapters in the book deal with the new security environment in which the military operates, the challenges that peacekeeping operations have posed, the revision of civilian control of the military, managing diversity and representation within the military, the difficulties military veterans face reintegrating back into society and finding gainful employment, gender equality and mainstreaming, human resources and labour relations, the challenges the military faces in dealing with military unions, as well as HIV/Aids and the consequences this holds for the military in terms of its operational effectiveness. 

Speaking on the issue of gender equality and mainstreaming, Heinecken says: “Gender equality remains a contentious issue in the military as it tries to grapple with feminism. The way the military has addressed gender equality has been through the belief that equal opportunities mean equal rights. However, with the rise of gender mainstreaming, it is not just about equality, it's about embracing difference and accommodating the different skills and talents that women bring to the organisation. This has been far more difficult to attain as there has been a slow recognition that involving women in the military is more beneficial, especially in peacekeeping operations."

Heinecken adds that her research has shown that “the time has come to make really tough decisions about the military's future". 

“We are at a point where politicians, the military itself and civil society need to engage with the issues facing the defence force. We are not living in a time of war, but we certainly do not have peace and security. In an increasing volatile world, we need to decide what kind of defence force we need for the security threats we face."

Heinecken's book costs R300 and can be found at the Protea Book Store, the Book Lounge in Cape Town, any Exclusive Books and most other major book stores.

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​Photo: Prof Lindy Heinecken, the country's leading sociologist on the military, has consolidated over 30 years of teaching experience and research on the military into a book titled South Africa's Post-Apartheid Military – Lost in transition and transformation. (Anton Jordaan, SSFD)​