May 17, 2012: South African politicians are acting surprised when they hear reports (personal, media, and government sponsored) that the South Africa Armed Forces are not what they used to be. The most embarrassing examples of this occurs when South African troops serve as peacekeepers in Africa and come off as second-rate compared to other African soldiers. Twenty years ago South African troops were considered, by everyone in Africa, to be the most professional and effective on the continent.
After the 1994 elections, the first to feature participation by all South Africans (not just the whites), the military quickly turned into another form of patronage. The word came down that the military was there to provide jobs for political loyalists of the party in power. These men could be dismissed only if they committed a serious crime (rape, murder, kidnapping) and were otherwise untouchable and increasingly undisciplined. Eventually most of the troops are too old, too sick, or too undisciplined to be effective soldiers. The government gets away with this because South Africa has no neighbors that pose a military threat.
It gets worse. In the last decade the government has bought billions of dollars worth of new aircraft and ships but has not provided the money needed to operate the new equipment. This means there is insufficient opportunity to train the crews. For example, the South African Navy has 18 warships and they are expensive to operate. In an effort to deal with these high operating expenses, and a shrinking defense budget, ships are being kept in port more often. Currently the budget allows ships to spend only 6-7 percent of their time at sea. The U.S. Navy has its ships at sea about 50 percent of the time. This is the main reason the American fleet is the most effective in the world. Being the largest fleet on the planet helps, but having a qualitative and quantitative edge creates an unbeatable combination.
In the last four years the South African navy received four new MEKO (NATO) type frigates and three Type 209 submarines. These are very capable ships but very expensive to operate. The South African Navy needs $1.2 million each year to operate each Type 209 boat. The government has not been providing enough money to cover all those costs. To make matters worse the expanding oil industry and high tech sectors of the economy have been tempting experienced officers and NCOs to leave the submarine service. Currently, an experienced submarine petty officer earns about a third of what comparable civilian jobs offer. The navy has not been able to obtain enough qualified sailors to operate its ships.
South African politicians believe that having a lot of ships in commission, even if they don't go to sea much, provides the potential for putting a lot of ships out there if the need arises. Left unsaid is the fact that sending a lot of inexperienced crews to sea increases the risk of accidents. Ships are complex beasts and the seas, especially around South Africa, are rough, often extremely rough. This can be a fatal combination for inexperienced crews.
South African politicians are living in the past with regards to their armed forces. Back in 1989, 4.5 percent of GDP was spent on defense and the armed forces were large and well trained. Now, defense gets 1.2 percent of GDP and the armed forces have not shrunk over 70 percent to adjust for the smaller budget. Unwilling to cut the force in line with the smaller budget, the politicians prefer to run a scam. The troops complain but at least they still have jobs. To South African politicians that's a reasonable outcome.