Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

Over the past few hundred years, the idea of kings and queens with absolute power has fallen out of favour and has been replaced by systems of democracy that divide command of the military between many different individuals. But surely they all answer to someone, right? Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

Since 1996, the Constitution of South Africa has clearly stated the role of the South African military and its general command structure.

Simply put, the command of structure of the country looks something like this

Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?
Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

Obviously, there are far more divisions that make up the military complex but hopefully, this can give you a rough idea of what the hierarchy looks like.

Regardless, now that we have a loose understanding of the system’s structure we can begin to understand how each group functions.

Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?
Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?
  • President – According to Chapter 11 Section 202 of the constitution, the president is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed services in South Africa. This means that the president is able to appoint a minister of defence and authorize the deployment of the military. There are, however, many limitations of this power, for example, the president may only mobilize the armed forces in scenarios such as –
  • National Defence
  • State of emergency
  • To fulfil an international obligation
  • Additionally, the president must provide reasoning to Parliament as to why the deployment is necessary, where it will occur, how many individuals will be involved, etc.
  • Minister of Defence and Military Veterans – This minister is appointed by the President and is tasked with supervision of the Department of Defence.
  • Department of Defence – The DoD is in charge of general preparations and planning for the nation’s defence, this involves things like financial planning, conducting audits, and creating a framework for potential defence situations.
  • Defense Secretariat – The defence secretariat can be seen as the more paperwork-orientated half of the DoD. They handle financial matters, internal affairs, and overall planning.
  • SA National Defence Force – The SANDF is the name given to the combined armed forces of the country. The head of the group is also appointed by the President.
  • Army – This is the branch of the armed services that deals with ground warfare. It mainly consists of things like infantry, armoured vehicles, and artillery.
  •  Navy – The navy deals with all forms of nautical warfare as well as issues like piracy, search and rescue, and fishery protection.
  • Air Force – The final branch in question deals with all forms of air warfare ranging from reconnaissance to infantry support.

Each of the above branches is further divided numerous times but all are ultimately answerable to the Defence Minister who in turn answers to the president.

Interestingly, Chapter 11, section 6 of the constitution does point out that no member of any branch of the military may obey a clearly illegal order. In theory, this provision helps to ensure that the military is not used for instances of illegal warfare or tyranny as every member of the armed services is expected to disobey such directives.

Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?
Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

Can the Military be used Against Political Parties? – Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

One of the most common occurrences in the buildup to a dictatorship is the silencing of political dissidents, as such, it’s vital that stable democracies clearly separate military branches from the political theatre.

With this in mind, Chapter 11, Section 7 of the constitution forbids the use of the military in partisan or politically biased ways. This means that the president cannot use the military to crack down on political groups that he/she disagrees with; unless of course they are found guilty of acts that might threaten the safety of the nation such as insurrection or the establishment of an illegal paramilitary group.

How are Military Members Punished for Crimes?

Members of the armed services are answerable to different legal systems depending on the extent of their crime. Normally, a member of the military is tried in a military court. This is done to ensure that military discipline is maintained amongst soldiers and that the context of military life is considered in the decision-making process. If, for example, if a service member refuses to obey an order they will usually end up in a military court although rulings can sometimes make their way all the way up to the constitutional court.

Military personnel are sometimes tried in civilian courts. If an individual is accused of something like rape or murder within the borders of the country, they will most likely face the standard criminal legal system. 

There are many who may worry but the effectiveness of a military court when compared to a standard criminal one. In her paper, “The South African Military Court System – Independent, Impartial and Constitutional?” Law Professor Marita Carnelley concludes that South African military courts can, “in general be regarded as independent and impartial”.

Can Martial Law be Established in South Africa? – Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

The phrase ‘martial law’ usually conjures images of a dystopian military state into people’s heads. In reality, the term martial law can be used to describe any instance in which the military imposes upon, or takes control of, normal civilian activities.

In this sense, martial law can be established in South Africa and already has been.

Chapter 11 section 201 of the constitution allows the president to deploy the military in cooperation with the police service. This means that the SANDF can be deployed when the police services are unable to enforce the law by themselves.

Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?
Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

As we’ve seen already, this provision has been used during the pandemic to help the police properly enforce the lockdown measures established by the government.

Of course, these events have led some people to worry that states of an emergency such as the pandemic give the government carte blanche to act with harsher laws and more draconian methods of enforcement.

How Strong is the South African Military?

All this talk of military hierarchy and martial law may have you wondering just how powerful the country’s military really is and how it compares to the rest of the world.

The SANDF has been ranked as the 32nd most powerful military in the world, making it the third most powerful in Africa behind Egypt and Algeria. As of 2019, the SANDF boasted a total of 74 508 active personnel and around 15 000 reserves.  

Interestingly, the country still possesses most of the weapons-grade uranium from its nuclear weapons program decades ago. The program was abandoned as the Apartheid system began to deteriorate making South Africa the only country in history to ever create nuclear weapons and then voluntarily dismantle them.

Theoretically, this stockpile could be used to create new nuclear weapons which would obviously ratchet up the nation’s military strength.

In Conclusion – Who does the South African Military Answer to and When can it be Deployed?

The South African military has an intricate hierarchy to ensure that each branch of the armed services is answerable to multiple authorities and committees.

Ultimately, all sections of the military answer to the president of South Africa who has the ability to mobilise the armed services when faced with a state of emergency, an international obligation or an issue of national defence.

The president must provide reasons for such deployments to parliament and/or the relevant committees.

Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?
Does the Military Report to the Government in South Africa?

The military can be deployed to assist the police service when they are unable to enforce the law themselves, they are, however, not allowed to act against lawfully operating political parties or act in favour of any others.

Members of the military who commit violations are usually prosecuted via military courts and tribunals but certain extreme matters can be dealt with in common civilian courts.

The South African military is ranked as the 32nd most powerful in the world and the 3rd most powerful in Africa.

Disclaimer LAW101: All of our posts are for research purposes only. Law 101 aims to assist its readers with useful information on the laws of our country that can guide you to make decisions in line with the South African Governmental Laws currently in place. Although in many instances, our posts cite the constitution, they are intended to assist readers who are looking to expand their knowledge of the law. Should you require specific legal advice we advise you to get in touch with a qualified legal expert.

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