South Africa’s biggest army deployment since 1994

South Africa is expected to deploy the largest number of defence force members in the country since 1994 to help law enforcement officials clamp down on the rampant looting and public violence that has plagued much of KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng in recent days.

Launched on 12 July, Operation PROSPER initially saw 2,500 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops deployed to assist police with restoring law and order in areas affected by the attacks.

The announcement was criticised by security analysts and the general public who said that this number was low compared to the deployment during the strictest Covid-19 lockdown period last year and would not be enough given the scale of the violence.

Following the criticism, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula sent a request to President Cyril Ramaphosa seeking authorisation to deploy 25,000 members.

This is more than triple the number of soldiers deployed during South Africa’s hard lockdown in March and April last year.

While it has been reported that more than 70,000 SANDF members had been “deployed” at that time, this number was actually for those that had been “employed”. This technical difference is important.

Employment does not require members to leave their offices, bases, or headquarters, whereas deployment would mean that members are sent into the field to be “boots on the ground”.

Africa Check has established that only 8,119 SANDF personnel were deployed during the strictest lockdown period. These included soldiers, nurses, doctors, and engineers.

SANDF soldiers
Soldiers assisting police at a roadblock during level 5 lockdown.

African Defence Review director Darren Olivier said that deploying 25,000 troops would require the SANDF to “go to the very back of the cupboard” and take everything that can move, no matter the cost or sustainability.

“It far eclipses the number deployed for Covid-19 and will cost a substantial amount of money. At this stage, with the carnage and chaos continuing unabated, that’s a cost that can no longer be avoided,” Olivier said.

“The Reserve Force, too, is being mobilised at a level I have not seen in the past 25 years.”

The SANDF yesterday sent out a circular that called all of its reserve troops to report for duty at first light on Thursday.

“It leaves nothing in reserve and halts all other SANDF duties and commitments. It’s a reflection of just how desperate things are,” Olivier said.

Olivier said he was sceptical about the exact make-up of the 25,000-strong deployment, as it was more than the available number of ground infantry in the SANDF.

“I suspect there’s a little bit of playing with numbers and including units that will support but not deploy. Even so, it’s unprecedented,” he stated.

Olivier reiterated that it was unlikely that all 25,000 SANDF members would be out on the streets, as only 16,665 were infantry-type or infantry-adjacent troops.

These include military police officers, anti-aircraft and artillery gunners, tank regiments, air force members, units already deployed elsewhere, and support staff, he stated.

He provided a breakdown of the numbers in the various infantry units in SANDF, which will possibly serve alongside SAPS:

Oliver also reiterated that there would be no change to the legal powers assigned to the force.

“This deployment is still one in cooperation with the SAPS, not replacing it, and many of those called up would not be well-suited for patrols in cities anyway,” he stated.

SANDF members have to abide by a code of conduct for the deployment, which includes that they must apply minimum force, are not allowed to fire warning shots, and must immediately report incidents wherein they used live ammunition to defend themselves, the police, property, or members of the public in life-threatening situations.

Olivier said the deployment was a short-term, emergency, all-hands-on-deck affair.

“It can’t be sustained for very long, so the government is clearly hoping that it’s effective enough to get the crisis under control quickly before it’s forced to reduce deployed numbers. The next few days are crucial,”

The deployment has not been gazetted yet, but Olivier said given that the president said there was no issue with regards to cost, he does not expect the authorisation to be rejected.

Now read: Rules for soldiers while fighting riots in South Africa revealed

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South Africa’s biggest army deployment since 1994