This is what happened to South Africa’s army and defence industry

The Defence Industry Strategy document, currently available for public comment, paints a grim picture for the country’s defence industry, detailing the mass erosion of the sector.

This includes a R12 billion drop in turnover from 1990, and a drop from 130,000 employees to just 15,000 in the same time period.

The 240 page document is intended to serve as the framework for sustaining and further developing the defence industry. This is broken into three main parts:

  • To support the Defence Force and ensure a reasonable measure of strategic independence and freedom of action for South Africa, by meeting critical requirements of the Defence Force and ensuring sovereign control over certain vital capabilities;
  • To provide South Africa with a useful tool of strategy and foreign policy; and
  • To reduce the negative economic impact of defence spending by retaining funds in South Africa, creating employment and generating export earnings.

However while the industry plots its way towards a more sustainable future, it does amidst the background of a mass erosion of the industry, noted the report.

What happened?

“Between 1965 and 1990 South Africa developed a defence industry remarkable both for its breadth and depth of capabilities, and for its innovative approach, which enabled it to develop several class-leading systems, of which mine-protected vehicles, long-range artillery and frequency-agile radios are only some well-known examples,” stated the report.

However the report notes that this drastically changed with the December 1988 Three Powers Accord confirming the withdrawal of Cuban forces from the region.

This in turn mean that the need for conventional forces was greatly reduced, and defence funding was slashed from the 1989 budget onward, falling by some 50% in real terms over five years.

Specifically, the cuts fell mainly on Defence Force with acquisition falling by 80% over that period; and Research and development falling by 70%.

“The impact on the industry was quick and severe,” noted the report, “with companies cutting internal R&D funding, many smaller defence companies closing down or exiting the defence field, and upstream suppliers cutting their capabilities and capacities.”

“It also led to a ‘brain drain’, both from the industry and from South Africa, with some of the most highly qualified and experienced engineers and technicians being recruited by companies in other countries.”

“With the exception of the 1999 Strategic Defence Packages (SDPs) and a small number of major projects, such as the new Badger infantry combat vehicle, the erosion of defence funding in real terms has continued since then, with government funds being channelled to address real and urgent socio-economic needs.”

As a result when operational commitments expanded after 2001, as South Africa took on regional and continental security obligations there was a resulting disconnect between defence funding and operational commitments.

“This has meant that the Defence Force is under-funded and lacks adequate funds for modernisation, capital acquisition, research and development, and even for adequate maintenance, repair and overhaul of equipment and systems.”


Keeping in mind the mass changes since 1989, the report highlighted the following “dramatic” effects on the defence industry:

  • Defence Force acquisition from the South African defence industry has dropped from R26.2 billion in 1989/90 to R7 billion in 2017 (both in 2017 Rand).
  • Research and Development funding has declined from R6.1 billion in 1989/90 to R850 million in 2017 (both in 2017 Rand).
  • Turnover has dropped from R31.6 billion in 1989/90 to R19 billion in 2016 (both in 2017 Rand).
  • Employment has dropped from some 130,000 employees in 3,000 companies in 1990 (9% of manufacturing employment and 10% of manufacturing companies)13, to some 15,000 employees in some 120 companies;and
  • Coupled to this has been a considerable loss of both breadth and depth of capabilities, although the core of its capabilities remains intact for now.

According to the report this was ameliorated somewhat by 1999’s Strategic Defence Packages (SDPs) which brought some new market opportunities and some investment in new technologies and processes that benefited South African companies.

“The insight into the South African defence industry gained by foreign defence groups that bid for SDP contracts also resulted in some of them acquiring majority stakes in local companies. While this was not uniformly beneficial to South Africa, it has seen some companies survive and prosper that might otherwise not have been able to win sufficient export work to offset the lack of local orders.”

Eyes front

The industry is now, like the Defence Force it supports, on a cusp and requiring decisive action if it is not to collapse for lack of a client base and marketable products, said the report.

“The risk of this has been greatly increased by the failure to fund even the implementation of the 2015 Defence Review’s ‘Milestone 1’, intended to “arrest the decline” of the Defence Force’s capabilities.”

With that in mind the document lays out four possible solutions going forward:

‘Business as Usual’

“Continue the trend of under-funding and operational over-stretch. Despite the best efforts of the Department of Defence, the resultant lack of acquisition and R&D funding will have the effect of putting the defence industry into an unplanned, unstructured, uncontrolled and accelerating downward spiral, shedding capabilities and jobs.”

‘Planned Shut-Down’

“Accept that defence will remain under-funded, and that the industry will wind down for lack of local orders and R&D funding, and plan for a structured and phased winding down of the industry and the concomitant loss of capabilities. Carefully planned and executed, that should allow at least retention of some core maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) capability.”

‘Stabilise and Sustain’

“Decide to retain those defence industry capabilities that are still viable and recover others deemed essential.”

‘Stabilise and Develop’

“Decide to use the present industry as the foundation for an expanded and better-balanced industry to optimally support the Defence Force, and to create an environment in which this industry can better support economic development and targeted industrialisation by means of localisation of selected bought-in technologies and processes (if necessary by means of legislated industry/sector designation), research and development, and exports.”

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