1. Introduction
  2. The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, through its Parliamentary Liaison Office, welcomes the opportunity once again to engage with the Defence Portfolio Committee. As always, we commend a constitutional dispensation that allows and promotes regular interaction of this kind between public representatives and civil society organisations.

  3. Background
  4. It is commonly recognised that there is a ‘social contract’ that exists between the government and citizens of democratic states. Citizens consent to be governed by a public authority that in turn provides a number of public goods for the benefit of the community. In such an arrangement, the government has the authority to make certain decisions and take certain actions in the interests of the community. For example, the government may use legitimate force within its jurisdiction: internally, in order to ensure the safety of the people within the state, and externally, to protect the people from aggressors and other threats.

    The 20th century however, perhaps more than any other, has demonstrated the capacity that states have to inflict illegitimate violence on their own as well as foreign populations. For the most part, the past 100 years have demonstrated that the threat to human rights increasingly comes not from external aggressors, but from internal threats. It has also become evident that the definition of security has expanded well beyond perceptions of military or violent threats to physical well-being. It is increasingly recognised that security is threatened by poverty, unemployment and the lack of basic services. While foreign domination is certainly undesirable, the majority of people face threats to their basic security due to a lack of access to resources, and because of structural inequalities within their own societies.

  5. The Church’s Position
  6. The Catholic Church, in common with numerous other religious groupings, has repeatedly emphasised the need to pursue the common good, rather than any narrow, sectoral interest. Given that the vast majority of people in South Africa are living in poverty, there is an imperative to ensure that the needs of this vulnerable group are attended to. Since the mid-1990s with the end of Apartheid and an increasingly stable regional environment, the likelihood of an external force invading our borders has decreased substantially.

    This means that it is time to reassess the principles that underlie our defence policy. This is not an academic exercise, but one that illustrates our commitment to the principles of the Constitution and, perhaps more importantly, to the upliftment and development of all of the people living in South Africa.

    The Church has long held that there must be a just distribution of wealth within a community, with the poor and those on the margins of the economy having priority. Vulnerable groups must have first call on resources for their upliftment and development, in order that they may attain their potential and aspire to reasonable material standards of living. Pope John Paul II recently reiterated this point when he said that 'the fate of our fellow citizens is always the priority' [6 March 2003].

    Unfortunately, the international system is premised on the idea that there needs to be a balance of power between states, and this is done, at least in part, through the accumulation of weaponry. While it is conceded that a certain level of preparedness may be necessary for the State to fulfil its duty, military spending in general, and the acquisition of enormously expensive arms in particular, has too often taken priority over the welfare needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

    Not only does the over-acquisition of arms impede development, but it can also in itself provide a reason for conflict and increases the danger of escalation. Such an accumulation of weapons tends to further entrench national and international power relations to the detriment of the poor. Even where the arms are not used in conflict situations ‘by their cost alone, armaments kill the poor by causing them to starve’ [Vatican Statement on Disarmament, 1976].

    The Church has called for an international order based not on a balance of power or the predominance of arms, but rather on a commitment to eradicating the sources of injustice that are at the root cause of conflict. As Pope John Paul II has said, there will be no peace on earth while the oppression of peoples, injustices and economic imbalances endure [5 March 2003]. It is only by prioritising people and combating injustice – created through the unequal international economic system and the refusal of wealthy states to redistribute their wealth and resources – that a genuine and lasting peace will be possible.

  7. The Defence Review
  8. Against this background we turn to a brief consideration of certain aspects of the Defence Review.

    1. Human Security vs Military Security
    2. In Chapter 1, paragraph 28, we read: "The greatest threats to the security of the South African people are socio-economic problems like poverty and unemployment, and the high level of crime and violence." Six years after this was stated as a 'key concept' underpinning the Defence Review, it remains true, despite the very praiseworthy efforts of the government to address these problems; indeed, if we take into account the horrific impact of HIV/AIDS on our social fabric, the overall situation may be said to worse now for many of our most vulnerable people than it was in 1998.

      Coupled with this 'key concept' we find repeated in the Defence Review ('DR') the ready concession that there is "no foreseeable external military threat" to South Africa (Ch 1, para 37; ch 2, para 6; ch 3, para 8.2. and para 11, among others). We suggest that the last six years have amply demonstrated the accuracy of this forecast: the southern African region, with the obvious exception of Zimbabwe, has enjoyed a generally enhanced stability, with a consequent further diminution of any military threat to South Africa.

      In this context we must once again question the wisdom of large-scale expenditure on defence, both in terms of the regular defence budget and with reference to 'one-off' expenditures such as the current arms acquisition programme. (We view with considerable scepticism the notion that the counter-trade and industrial participation elements of the notorious 'arms deal' will have any meaningful impact on the socio-economic problems outlined in the DR; the evidence so far tends to suggest corruption rather than construction, as was predicted by numerous observers at the time the acquisition programme was announced.) As one example, the purchase of corvettes at a cost of billions of Rands was largely motivated by reference to their 'collateral' function in fisheries protection. Now we find that the government has commissioned the construction of specialised fisheries patrol vessels - at a fraction of the cost of naval vessels - to carry out the 'collateral' function of the corvettes.

      What this amounts to is a skewing of priorities, and a continued postponement of the realisation of socio-economic rights for the majority of our people.

    3. Peacekeeping and Co-operation

    One way in which the SANDF has shown itself able to make a real and constructive contribution is in the areas of regional co-operation and international peace support operations (dealt with in chapters 5 and 6 of the DR). We welcome and support the presence of the SANDF in the Great lakes region; together with the government's diplomatic initiatives, this has gone a long way to bringing a degree of stability to that region. In the continuing absence of a military threat, and mindful of the moves towards greater continental solidarity symbolized by NEPAD, the AU and the Pan-African Parliament, we suggest that this type of intervention should become the stock-in-trade of our armed forces. But if this is to become a priority it is necessary that they be equipped to carry out that role (cf Ch 5, para 7). At the risk of repetition, the present arms acquisition programme does little to enhance our peacekeeping capability; no amount of submarines and fighter aircraft can have the stabilising impact of a battalion of well-trained peacekeeping troops (cf Ch 5, para 35).

    We note the reference in Ch 4, para 14, to a "small peace support operations centre … to co-ordinate planning, training, logistics, communication and field liaison teams for multi-national forces." Has such a centre been established?

    With reference to Ch 5, para 24, we would support the use of the SANDF in mine-clearing operations and other peaceful field-engineering applications. The prevalence of mines in Mozambique and Angola is, to some extent at least, the direct result of the destabilising policies of the previous South African regime. It would be only fitting if we were to take the lead in removing these deadly reminders of the past, not as a commercial undertaking by Denel, but as an act of reparation to our neighbours.

    4.3 Land

    Chapter 12 of the DR, dealing with land and environment, notes that the DoD's land holdings "mostly reflect the previous era that was characterised in part by operations in Angola and Namibia and adversarial relations with neighbouring countries" (para 6). There is also a set of guiding principles (para 31) that will inform the DoD's approach to restitution claims. At the same time that the Defence Committee is revisiting the DR, the Land Affairs Portfolio Committee will be conducting hearings into the pace of land reform, which many role-players believe is too slow. The question that naturally arises, therefore, is whether or not the DoD has done all it can, not simply in addressing restitution claims, but more pro-actively in redistribution of some of its larger land-holdings that are no longer needed, given the absence of 'adversarial relations with neighbouring countries'.

    4.4 The Arms Deal

    Perhaps the most notable defence-related development since the publication of the DR has been the arms acquisition programme. While the Catholic Church, among many other civil society groups, seriously questioned the need for this degree of re-armament, we have always conceded that government has a responsibility to provide for the security needs of the country. With the acquisition programme now well under way, three points deserve reiteration.

    Firstly, whether elements of the programme were attended by corruption and other improprieties or not, the sidelining of Parliament's oversight role, as exercised by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, served only to reinforce the widespread perception that there were irregularities of some kind that needed to be hidden. The various court cases, both criminal and civil, that have flowed from the deal may either correct or confirm such perceptions; however, it remains a matter of deep regret that the executive saw fit to act in the way it did at the time of SCOPA's investigation. The result has been lasting damage to an important institution of parliamentary democracy.

    Secondly, the acquisitions were 'sold' to the public to a large extent by the promise of anticipated benefits in counter-trade and industrial participation. As we have already said, we remain to be convinced that these benefits will materialise in a way that even vaguely matches the promise. It behoves this Committee, charged with oversight of the defence portfolio, to monitor vigorously the progress or failure of the counter-trade and industrial participation agreements, to require accountability from the executive in this regard, and to keep the public informed. It is understood that the Department of Trade and Industry is primarily tasked with these aspects of the acquisition programme, but this does not relieve the Defence Committee of its responsibility as representatives of the public.

    Thirdly, we express the hope that there are no further plans for major arms acquisitions (bearing in mind that the package settled upon in 1999 fell short of what the military authorities requested). We note, for example, that main battle tanks were excluded from the current acquisition programme, despite the statement in the DR that current equipment is due for replacement from 2009 (Ch 8, para 22.1. The same situation pertains for various other categories of equipment.)

  9. Finally

In conclusion, we return to our starting point and, indeed to what appears in the first chapter of the DR: the fact that we face our greatest threat from socio-economic realities, not from hypothetical military adversaries. Of course, any government must to some degree prepare for the unexpected and the possible, but not to the extent that such preparation compromises its ability to deal with what is real, identifiable and measurable. There is no need here to list our socio-economic challenges. The question is whether the correct balance of priorities has been achieved between expenditure of public resources on meeting these real and present dangers on the one hand, and on preparing to meet vague and uncertain dangers on the other. We do not believe that that balance has been found.

For more information, please contact:

Adv. Mike Pothier

Research Coordinator