Whose Defence Force? Whose Jurisdiction?

I am sure that many South Africans are relieved that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been withdrawn from the Central African Republic. While we mourn and honour our dead, many too, I am sure, are deeply concerned about the recent statements of President Jacob Zuma regarding oversight of the SANDF’s activities.

During the 1980s I was one of a significant group of white South Africans who resisted service in the then South African Defence Force (SADF). We believed that it was not a national defence force but an organ that preserved and protected the sectoral interests of white minority rule and was nothing more than the military wing of the then ruling National Party. The SADF was also an instrument of oppression within South Africa and a force illegally occupying a neighbouring country (Namibia) and destabilising the rest of the southern African subcontinent.

Like many South Africans, I welcomed the emergence of the new SANDF, as both a defence force for our new democracy and as a peace-keeping force. On that glorious day in 1994 I welcomed the participation of the SANDF at the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. Like many South Africans I could say, for the first time, that they were our Defence Force.

During the past, those who asked “Why are we in Namibia?”  or “Why are we in the townships?” were called, among less printable names, traitors. Today we are told to mind our own business, that the role of our SANDF is not subject to the Constitution and, ultimately, the people of South Africa.

During our past, the late great journalist of the Left, Ruth First (among many other journalists and scholars) warned against the political misuse of the military, within South Africa and elsewhere. For them, the ideology of ‘national security’ was part of a lie, a false consciousness, that was a mark of authoritarianism and contempt for democracy.

Any government, any party, any elite that regards the legitimate demand of the public that they account for the deployment of the defence force as treasonous or not their business holds the public in contempt.

Such contempt for the public combined with national security ideology is often the first signs of a mentality that leads to dictatorship.  If you doubt this, ask the people of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, or – closer to home – Zimbabwe, or pre-1994 South Africa.

The Catholic Church is not pacifist. We allow for justified use of military force. We acknowledge the right of countries to self-defence.  We also acknowledge that government must be accountable to the people, that citizens have a right to criticise the actions of government, particularly those done in our name.

The SANDF are our Defence Force.  They are subject to the Constitution, to the Bill of Rights, and are ultimately subject to us. It is our right as citizens of a democracy to inquire why they are deployed in the Central African Republic…or anywhere else.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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