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02/03/2018 06:14 SAST | Updated 28/03/2018 13:24 SAST

Why Ramaphosa's Praise For The Military Was Too Exuberant

Ramaphosa overstated the role of the SANDF in what he described as a "flourishing... constitutional order".

South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers.
Ihsaan Haffejee/ S Dal/ Reuters
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers.

Countries across the world have instituted an "Armed Forces Day" to commemorate the past contributions and sacrifices made by their military men and women in war and conflict, and to acknowledge the continued role they play in seeking the national interest. Last week marked the sixth Armed Forces Day held by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The official website of the SANDF explains the purpose of the day as follows: "This is to honour SA National Defence Force... men and women in uniform for their patriotic service to the nation and to pay homage to all those who died in the line of duty.!" [sic]

As important as it may be, Armed Forces Day is about more than honouring patriotic service and the sacrifice of life. In "raising awareness... about the Armed Forces and Defence Force capabilities", the day also serves as a confidence-and security building measure, relevant to the domestic arena as much as it is to relations between states.

This involves the development of an interface between South Africa's military institution and civilian society (which it pledges to serve) that is characterised by trust – a necessity for the building of stable civil-military relations. It also involves an opportunity for the SANDF to display some of its capabilities.

Additionally, and because of the SANDF's self-proclaimed role as "the employer of choice" in a country with high levels of youth unemployment, Armed Forces Day, whether justifiably so or not, is also about giving hope for a better future to those in need of it.

The premier of Northern Cape – the province that hosted the latest Armed Forces Day – emphasised in an interview that the SANDF was "showcasing the opportunities that are available for young people".

MUJAHID SAFODIEN via Getty Images
President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) watches the SANDF during Armed Forces Day on February 21, 2018 in Kimberley.

Praise for the SANDF and its role in South Africa's democracy

Ahead of Armed Forces Day, South Africa's recently inaugurated president, Cyril Ramaphosa, paid tribute to the SANDF during an interfaith "church" service. He said that "the defence force has again confirmed the depth of the roots of South Africa's democracy and the flourishing of constitutional order".

President Ramaphosa continued: "Our nation celebrates the change of leadership in the governing party without any appetite for senseless bloodshed because our defence force is led by wise women and men who abide to the ideal of the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law."

Further to this, and with reference to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa spoke of "a coherent SANDF whose task is to diligently safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the republic, build peace, and support development on the African continent... a national defence force that is a true microcosm of our diverse society."

That the military is encouraged and congratulated for its achievements remains important for healthy civil-military relations and in turn, the growth of democracy.

For the sake of democracy, it is also important that South Africans not interpret the absence of intervention on the part of the SANDF, during recent power shifts in the country's political arena, as confirmation of a flourishing constitutional order.

Nor should it be interpreted as the fulfilment of the principles that define democratic civil-military relations. To do so would be to overlook the work that still needs to be done in the broader political context and in the civil-military context more specifically.

The intention is not to contend that the SANDF is outrightly unprofessional, but to temper the enthusiasm with which Ramaphosa praised the SANDF for its contribution towards constitutional order.

Contextualising Ramaphosa's praise

Indeed, armed forces have been, and will continue to be, integral to political transitions and political stability across the African continent. The history of civil-military relations in Africa reveals, however, that the role of the military in politics has traditionally proven detrimental to political stability and democratisation.

In this regard, the SANDF stands apart, if only in refraining from taking up arms in the context of domestic politics – an unlikely event, according to Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies.

No matter how laudable a country's constitution, its potential for encouraging freedom and prosperity is only equivalent to the extent to which citizens, and particularly those representing the state, are willing to abide by its precepts.

This especially includes the military, which, because of its possession of arms, has tremendous potential to challenge the constitutional order. This reality sits at the roots of Ramaphosa's comments made a few days prior to Armed Forces Day.

Subservience a necessary but insufficient condition

Democracy is strengthened by the existence of a nonpartisan military, willing to subordinate itself before democratically elected politicians who govern according to the Constitution – conditions bound up in the notion of democratic control.

While these conditions are necessary for democratic civil-military relations and therefore for democracy, they remain insufficient as a measure of the military's practical role in a constitutional order. Ramaphosa, therefore, overstated the role of the SANDF in what he described as a "flourishing... constitutional order".

MUJAHID SAFODIEN via Getty Images
SANDF members take part in Armed Forces Day on February 21, 2018 in Kimberley.

In his paper titled "Civil-Military Relations In Africa: Navigating Unchartered Waters", Naison Ngoma lists eight key principles of democratic civil-military relations. It is these principles by which the citizens of an aspiring or established democracy ought to assess the role of their armed forces in making democracy a reality:

  • To be accountable to civil authorities, independent oversight agencies and civil society;
  • To adhere to the rule of law, that is, international law and domestic constitutions;
  • Transparent planning and budgeting processes;
  • Respect for human rights and a culture of civility;
  • To be subjected to political control over operations and expenditure;
  • Regular consultation with civil society;
  • Professionalism;
  • To support collaborative peace and security.

Each of the above-mentioned principles hinges on the notion of military professionalism, recognised under "Principle 8" of the "South African Defence Review 2015". A low level of, or decline in, military professionalism, therefore, has the potential to jeopardise the fulfilment of the other seven principles and the positive role that the military can play in creating a flourishing constitutional order.

In short, and based on a reading of Samuel Huntington's, "The Soldier And The State", military professionalism involves expertise in the management of violence, employing this expertise in a responsible manner (i.e. in a manner that is not detrimental to the state or its citizens), and embodying a corporate character.

A number of incidents, observations and opinions reported over a nine-year period question the extent of professionalism within the SANDF. In highlighting these, the intention is not to contend that the SANDF is outrightly unprofessional, but to temper the enthusiasm with which Ramaphosa praised the SANDF for its contribution towards constitutional order.

If not for this, the SANDF and South Africa at large may miss an opportunity to work towards the kind of constitutional order that Ramaphosa has already claimed.