The deployment of the South African National Defence Force during the country’s lockdown does not mean people should expect a massive increase in deployed soldiers on the country’s streets.
On 21 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa notified Parliament that he authorised the deployment of 73,180 members from the SANDF’s Regular, Reserve, and Auxiliary Forces.
This is in addition to the deployment of 2,280 members in March, who were tasked with assisting the police in enforcing lockdown restrictions.
South Africans may be frightened at the idea of having over 70,000 armed soldiers patrolling the streets or stopping them at roadblocks.
National Secretary of the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) Pikkie Greeff told MyBroadband there is no need for panic, however.
Why the big number
Greeff firstly explained why President Ramaphosa opted for the deployment of effectively the entire SANDF.
“Every time the President wants to utilise the SANDF, he is supposed to notify Parliament formally about the number of members to be used, the period that they are to be used, and the cost that is predicted with that kind of usage,” Greeff said.
Instead of giving notices on an ad hoc basis, Ramaphosa has issued a blanket notice which covers the entire SANDF strength.
“That’s given him great manoeuvrability in dealing with this crisis as it unfolds and provides him the ability to respond if the worst-case scenario should come upon us very quickly,” Greeff said.
This could be helpful in deploying soldiers at short notice. “I think it’s actually a brilliant strategic move, it’s prudent to have your reserves in place,” Greeff said.
Not law enforcement
It should be noted that unlike certain media reports have indicated, these soldiers will not be used in carrying out law enforcement responsibilities.
“The 73,180 deployment should not be seen as a mass of 73,180 boots on the ground being deployed to various areas,” Greeff said.
Greeff explained that the 2,820 soldiers who were first deployed were called in under Section 19 of the Defence Act, which provides for the deployment of the SANDF to assist police in enforcing law and order.
As Ramaphosa invoked Section 18 of the Defence Act to deploy the additional 73,180 soldiers, they are tasked to help in other essential services or public service departments, which could include duties such as assisting in the preservation of life, health, and property, as well as border control.
Greeff provided several examples of where the soldiers could be utilised.
“Any essential service where extra help is needed, that’s where soldiers could potentially be deployed,” he explained.
If a neighbouring country was to lift their lockdown restrictions, the effect could be that lots of people may attempt to enter South Africa.
Soldiers can then be deployed to assist immigration services and border control officials if required.
Additionally, military medical personnel and soldiers may be needed in the healthcare effort where clinics are understaffed or have been expanded.
“Don’t be surprised if you see soldiers wiping floors in hospitals,” Greeff said.
“They have the numbers available. They have the necessary transport and structure hierarchy to execute those kinds of tasks very quickly, as and where needed,” he stated.
SANDF’s engineers could also help with the construction of infrastructure and facilities to aid in the fight against the virus, such as field hospitals.
Training and equipment
The training of soldiers includes civilian operations in support of the police, stated Greef.
“Just remember the soldiers are always theoretically and legally under command of the local police.”
He said that it was also disingenuous to question the training of the military and police, especially when members of the public have attempted to assumed the role of law enforcement officers.
“I do find it a bit worrying that members of the public would be concerned about soldiers and police, whom we all know receive training, yet they have no problem with civilians belonging to so-called neighbourhood patrols with no training whatsoever acting like law enforcement officers,” Greeff said.
According to reports received by SANDU, soldiers are generally well-received by the public.
“We haven’t heard of any incidents that soldiers reported to us that the public is anti-military as such,” Greeff said.
He acknowledged media reports over incidents of alleged misconduct and unlawful behaviour from SANDF members, but said these were relatively few when taking into account the scale and length of the deployment.
He also expects the overall positive reception of the SANDF will continue as additional members are deployed to assist in essential services.
“I think that’s going to continue to grow… where they will be in contact with the public on a different basis than where they are armed to the teeth. Where they will be like public servants in assisting pensioners in SASSA queues or whatever the case may be,” Greeff stated.