Ramaphosa’s decision to deploy 73 000 soldiers questions lockdown’s end
If lockdown is expected to end next week, why has the president mobilised the 'largest military deployment in the country's history'?
A document, penned by President Cyril Ramaphosa, which calls for the deployment of over 70 000 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel, has raised some alarms.
South Africans expecting a total termination of lockdown regulations on 30 April are likely to be sorely disappointed. Instead, President Ramaphosa is expected to reveal details of a gradual, phased approach to the relaxation of terms within the Disaster Management Act.
This lingering lockdown, although not unique in its application when compared to other nations’ social distancing strategies, has been made more complicated by the president’s decision to deploy the country’s entire military force until June 2020.
The official document, noting the full-scale SANDF deployment, was leaked to the public on Tuesday night, shortly before Ramaphosa addressed the nation on social and economic relief measures.
Army deployment hurts the lockdown countdown
While initial confusion surrounding parliamentary protocols clouded any sense of clarity, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula confirmed the validity of the document and added that action would be taken against Democratic Alliance (DA) leader John Steenhuisen for ‘leaking’ sensitive information relating to issues of national security.
Steenhuisen originally shared the document on social media and later questioned government’s militaristic approach, saying:
“We need to understand why such a big deployment is used, where these troops are going to be deployed and for what purpose. We’ve already seen some disturbing reports emerging about abuse and the like.”
Defence Minister explains ‘largest ever’ military deployment
Mapisa-Nqakula confirmed the president’s deployment order, adding that the total number of boots on the ground would exceed 75 000 at a total cost of R4.5 billion.
The defence minister, who has been on the receiving end of fierce criticism following allegations of military brutality, one such incdient resulting in the death of an Alexandra resident, elaborated on the decision to deploy more SANDF resources, saying:
“If you look at the numbers and the rate at which the infection has gone up, you will realise that at some point we may actually need the kind of human deployment which has never been seen before.
We need to tighten and foresee [and] make sure that our people understand fully the dangers of getting this virus.”
Detailed information of the extended SANDF deployment — sanctioned to last until 26 June — has not yet been provided. It’s expected that President Ramaphosa will, during his Thursday address, touch on the sensitive issue of a full-scale SANDF deployment programme.
The devil’s in the details
Next week this time, South Africans would have spent five weeks in lockdown. In that time, the country’s standstill has severely impacted the economy and the lives of millions of South Africans, especially those languishing in poverty.
Although the current lockdown is expected to end on 30 April, Ramaphosa’s deployment order has raised some serious questions about government’s ability to handle a volatile socioeconomic powder keg. Civil societies and politicians say that the implementation of ‘martial law’, beyond the official lockdown period, would only serve to further inflame tensions and raise national anxieties.
While government has denied any sinister ulterior motives, fine, yet vital, details of the president’s authorisation point to a flawed process, which has raised further red flags. While it’s not the first time Ramaphosa has authorised the deployment of military resources, it is the first occasion whereby proper protocol has been disregarded, either by mistake or intentionally.
In line with Section 201(2) of the Constitution, a letter of deployment needs to be offered to Parliament’s leadership structures. Unfortunately, the request for mobilisation was, in this isolated instance, brought to the Joint Standing Committee on Defence; an egregious lapse in Constitutional procedures.
SANDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam, SANDF Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant-General Rudzani Maphwanya and Defence Secretary Sam Gulube, under the leadership of Mapisa-Nqakula, briefed parliament on Wednesday. SANDF officials were flippant about the technicalities of the deployment and, according to Daily Maverick, Yam argued:
“You’re not our clients. We are not the police. We take instructions from the commander-in-chief [Ramaphosa].”
In accordance with the Constitution, however, issues of national security are beholden to Parliament and the National Executive.