Five deployments and R3.4 billion later — South Africa’s army fighting everything but wars

The South African Defence Force (SANDF) has been deployed within the country’s borders for five different purposes in the last three and half years, a major swing from its involvement in the country’s internal affairs in the years before.

South Africa’s military had not been deployed to assist with law enforcement or other tasks within the country since the early 1990s.

The only previous use of the SANDF was for rescue efforts after national disasters and helping at the country’s borders — particularly around the Beit Bridge border that crosses into Zimbabwe.

That changed in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic — when many more ordinary South Africans would first start to see camo-clad soldiers with high-calibre rifles patrolling streets and manning roadblocks.

In the month following the start of the country’s first lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that 70,000 troops would be deployed to assist the South African Police Service (Saps) with enforcing measures that sought to minimise the spread of the virus.

Some considered this step necessary, while others warned it could set a dangerous precedent for normalising future deployments and not viewing them as a last resort.

A surge in violence and various crimes in the years that followed has necessitated more deployments to assist in jobs that the police should carry out.

That includes combatting and preventing looting, protecting Eskom infrastructure, and fighting against the scourge of illegal miners.

All these deployments have been done under what the government has dubbed “Operation Prosper”, which seeks to “restore order” within the confines of the law.

These deployments signal a worrying decline in the state of South Africa’s safety and stability and have cost the country over R3.4 billion.

Meanwhile, the SANDF has had to endure budget cuts and warned it could soon struggle to pay salaries. One of the contributors to its financial predicament is its heavy reliance on reserve force deployments.

Among the many critics of the now-regular deployments is African Defence Review director Darren Olivier, who has maintained that the approaches harmed both the SANDF and the SAPS and would have long-term negative consequences for civil-military relations.

“The government is out of ideas and throwing the military at problems it’s not suited for,” Olivier said.

Below, we have listed all the SANDF deployments to assist with functions other than protecting South Africa from threats beyond its borders — the actual purpose of a military force.


April 2020 to February 2022 — Covid-19 lockdown

  • Estimated cost: R1.66 billion
  • Maximum number of troops involved: 70,000 

In its first official deployment in a democratic South Africa, the SANDF was primarily tasked with assisting police and metro officers in roadblocks to establish whether South Africans driving about during the lockdowns had the necessary paperwork to do so.

Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp (CC BY-ND 4.0) This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

July 2021 to March 2022 — Looting, riots, and crime prevention

  • Estimated cost: R870 million
  • Maximum number of troops involved: 25,000

This deployment came in the wake of widescale looting and riots in KwaZulu-Natal’s major metros and parts of Gauteng in July 2021, resulting in billions of rand in damages.

Police in Durban and Pietermaritzburg were completely overwhelmed by the initial violence, leading to private citizens having to defend their homes and businesses.

Although the SANDF’s initial role was to safeguard looting hotspots and major targets like trucks, it later extended into general crime prevention assistance long after the rioting had calmed down.

SANDF and SAPS arresting looters

December 2022 to March 2024 — Eskom power station and infrastructure protection

  • Estimated cost: R257 million
  • Maximum number of troops involved: 880

The widespread vandalism and sabotage of Eskom infrastructure has weakened the utility and made load-shedding worse.

In the early days of the deployment, critics were sceptical that the deployment of troops at power stations and key infrastructure points would help deter workers and other insiders with malicious intent from sabotaging Eskom.

Eskom’s Tutuka power station has endured some of the worst sabotage and suspected internal incidents of corruption.

March 2023 to April 2023 — EFF-led “national shutdown”

  • Estimated cost: R166 million
  • Maximum number of troops involved: 3,000

The EFF-led “national shutdown” protest stirred fears of a repeat of the July 2021 riots, particularly after inflammatory comments by the controversial leader of the red berets, Julius Malema.

Responding to critics of the protest in the weeks leading up to the action, Malema threatened those who would violate his right to protest.

“I can tell you with ease. Let any boy or girl come and try to stop me. He will meet his maker. When he leaves in the morning, he must kiss his mother goodbye,” the red berets leader warned.

There were no major incidents of unrest or looting on the day, and the “shutdown” was widely regarded as a failure. Some analysts suggested the deployment of soldiers helped ensure that cooler heads prevailed.

Julius Malema
Julius Malema

November 2023 to April 2024 — Illegal mining

  • Estimated cost: R492 million
  • Maximum number of troops involved: 3,300

The latest deployment of troops is aimed at helping the police crackdown on another rampant crime — illegal mining — which has become a scourge on the outskirts of Johannesburg for its “gang-like” style of turf wars and intimidation.

In recent months, there were incidents of community members like those in the suburb of Riverlea being assaulted by illegal miners, often referred to as “zama zamas”.

The SANDF had assisted the police in combatting the crime with a more modest complement of 880 soldiers.

Regular critics of SANDF deployment for non-military purposes, like South African National Defence Union (SANDU) secretary Pikkie Greeff and defence analyst Helmoed Heitman, have been more welcoming of this particular initiative.

Over 100 suspected illegal miners were arrested in a joint operation by SAPS and the SANDF in Ekurhuleni in Gauteng on Friday, 1 December 2023. Credit: SAPS

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Five deployments and R3.4 billion later — South Africa’s army fighting everything but wars