Challenges Facing the SANDF: From Integration to Affirmative Action

By Pule Zwane Researcher ,
National Association of Democratic Lawyers

Published in African Security Review Vol 4 No 1 1995


The current debate in defence circles focuses mostly on integration. Little attention has been paid to representativeness and the management of diversity within the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The assumption is made that integration will legitimise the SANDF in the eyes of the majority of the populace. While the process might offer some possibilities towards this end, it is not sufficient on its own.

Military analysts tend to regard affirmative action within the context of the integration process. The two processes, however, are not the same and should not be confused. Integration refers to the merging of different armed forces, each with its own traditions, cultures and norms. Affirmative action on the other hand, refers to the redressing of historical imbalances. It identifies employment positions that have been inaccessible to disadvantaged groups and launches special recruitment drives for these groups, as well as engaging in training and development.

If affirmative action is addressed within the integration process, it will only benefit members from the guerrilla forces and to a lesser extent from the former TBVC forces (Transkei, Bophutha-tswana, Venda and Ciskei). It will do little for black members of the old South African Defence Force (SADF) and women who have been historically deprived of rightful opportunities. Integration might lead to senior members of the guerrilla and TBVC forces occupying senior positions in the SANDF, but it will not address other historical imbalances. For instance, the old SADF’s promotion system was discriminatory, resulting in the leadership being predominantly white. Women in the SADF, but also in the guerrilla and TBVC forces were generally excluded from senior leadership positions. Integration alone will do little to address this imbalance. Only a formalised affirmative action process, which is correctly designed and implemented, will be successful.

This article attempts to clarify the concept of affirmative action and tries to distinguish it from equal opportunity provision. It analyses the need for affirmative action in the SANDF, discusses the scope for implementation and finally, proposes a model appropriate to the SANDF.


Affirmative action has become a contentious issue in the United States as a result of historic problems. This has caused reluctance on the part of South African organisations to use the concept for their own cross-cultural integration processes. It also appears to form the basis of many organisations’ uncertainty in defining the concept and embarking on a process to achieve equality. Furthermore, in the United States minority groups are negotiating a "place in the sun" from the majority who set the norms and standards. Contrary to this, South Africa faces a reversed situation where the majority was disadvantaged and the minority set the norms and standards.

Most of the research on affirmative action has been done by whites from a "white" frame of reference. Black people argue that the ethnocentric nature of white management does not take African values into account. As a result, they question the legitimacy of white "experts" defining norms for organisational culture in a country where the majority of people are black, often with different norms and values. A new paradigm needs to be found which would integrate appropriate norms and values from the whole spectrum of the South African populace.


Affirmative action as a concept was first introduced in the United States by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, but only legislated by President Linden B. Johnson in 1965. It is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated in the 1940’s by the International Labour Organisation, which states that "everyone is entitled to pursue his/her material well-being and spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity without discrimination on the basis of race, sex, colour and language". It concentrates on the employment, development and promotion of disadvantaged groups. It allocates resources to the disadvantaged and prescribes corrective action to be adopted by organisations to redress inequalities.

Proponents see it as a means of curing the scars inflicted on individuals through discrimination and transforming institutionalised processes that have perpetuated the low status of disadvantaged groups. Opponents see it as reversed discrimination which contributes to discrimination in group status. It is felt that awarding jobs and benefits according to group statistics rather than on individual merit, is unjust and lowers standards and organisational effectiveness.

Equal opportunity should be seen as the point on the continuum where affirmative action has eliminated all inequalities between diverse members of an organisation such as the SANDF, and all staff members have reached a level where they can compete equally. The provision of equal opportunities can be implemented without embarking on affirmative action, and does not in itself imply the emergence of genuine economic, political and social equality#. Those traditionally privileged may continue to enjoy inherited advantages and such continuing advantages are usually achieved through the exercise of skills derived from experience. To avoid this, affirmative action measures should be employed to empower the disadvantaged.

Affirmative action has an element of preferential treatment, while merit is one of the main criteria in the provision of equal opportunities. Affirmative action serves initially as impetus for improving capabilities, until every staff member is properly prepared to compete on an equitable basis in an environment where equal opportunities for advancement exist. While affirmative action favours and empowers historically disadvantaged groups, equal opportunity simply provides the opportunity without distinction to everyone and without any commitment towards the empower-ment of disadvantaged groups.


Affirmative action has been part of modern day South Africa since 1922, when it was initiated as a result of the White Mineworkers’ Strike. Subsequently, a "civilised labour policy" was instituted by Govern-ment to appease the rebelling mineworkers. This policy was legislated through the passing of the 1925 Wage Act, that formalised a hierarchy of salaries ostensibly in favour of white mineworkers, and the Mines and Works Act of 1926, that introduced white job reservation. The public sector and the SADF in particular, were used by the National Party as a source of political patronage#.1 Through the years these institutions have come to be regarded by the majority of blacks as the important cornerstones of oppression.


The SANDF, Police Services and other civil service institutions are meant to provide assistance in the executive functions of the govern-ment in power. Maphai2 pointed out that the symbolic, economic and political dimensions of the civil service complicate the matter.

On a symbolic level, any political party that has won elections and becomes part of the government of the day, would like to be seen as liberated from the institutions of its predecessor. An integral part of the symbols of independence and power, is the visible presence and representation of the ruling party’s constituency in the civil service, including the SANDF. The priority at present, is to restructure these institutions in a manner reflective of the country’s diverse demography.

The economic level encompasses the provision of employment for disadvantaged groups. This is a critical issue in South Africa given the rate of unemployment among the black population. Secondly, as Maj Gen Bantu Holomisa put it, "we must accept and understand that, in certain areas, any future government will have to find posts for certain people who played a strategic role in helping them to win elections".3

On a political level, the security forces were perceived to be strongly partisan. A great amount of power and patronage was associated with them, primarily as a result of their strong links with the National Party. It is feared that the restructured SANDF might include reactionary groups who would frustrate reform initiatives by the Government of National Unity. The emphasis should thus be on a more representative SANDF, which will be in line with the requirements of developing and restructuring South Africa.



The old SADF’s traditional promotion system has resulted in the organisation’s leadership being predominantly white. In 1991, all officers in the top five salary scales of the Permanent Force (PF) were white. At lower levels of command, there were 25 Africans, 14 Indians, 123 Coloureds and 7 191 white officers up to and including the rank of colonel#.4 In 1993, the most senior African army officer was a colonel in the Chaplain’s service#.5 Senior white officers of the former SADF still insist that "this anomaly will be addressed during integration and in fact results have already become visible with the first appointments that have been made recently".6

However, these imbalances will not be adequately addressed by the integration process, which only involves members of the non-statutory forces (NSF). NSF members should not be the only beneficiaries of affirmative action. In fact, the real beneficiaries are suppose to be those black members of the former SADF who have been historically deprived of opportunities and who are presently being marginalised by the exigencies of the integration process. Although senior members of the guerrilla and TBVC forces have the potential to become officers in the SANDF, they do not necessarily have the technical and other experience to fill top management positions. Black members of the former SADF have been serving the conventional force for half of their lives, and some of them have long since acquired the necessary experience to make them eligible for promotion.

To date, according to Vice Admiral P. van Z. Loedolff, Chief of Staff Personnel, SANDF, "the situation in respect of representativeness of non-white members has improved as a result of integration from 0 - 19,6% in the case of general officers and from 1,6% - 9,26% in the case of senior officers". 7 However, those who are enjoying these benefits are members of the NSF only, which ignores black members of the former SADF. It seems as if these officers are not being considered for promotion, despite many years of loyal service and adherence to the same traditions and values which the SANDF upholds.


Defence forces throughout the world are monopolised by males and are ruled by gender stereotyping. In South Africa, the debate on the integration process paid little attention to this issue. Over the past two decades, male conscripts comprised the majority of SADF personnel. In 1991, women made up fourteen per cent of the Permanent Force and a minor proportion of the officer corps : 103 commandants, ten colonels, one brigadier and no generals. In the same year, women constituted twenty per cent of MK, with only one in a formal leadership position8. In 1994, the TEC Sub-Council on Defence and the JMCC were comprised exclusively by males. Female members of the former SADF, guerrilla and TBVC forces are not allowed to occupy combat positions and are generally excluded from direct combat. According to recent research conducted by Cock9#, women in these defence forces claimed that they are subjected to systematic discrimination.

In the light of these historical imbalances between male and female soldiers, it is imperative to draw on international development in this area. It is also important to contextualise the issue within the whole feminist debate. Within the military sphere, feminists emphasise gender equality in the existing social order and argue that women’s participation in all forms of military service, and in combat roles in particular, is as crucial as their involvement in other spheres of society.

A large contingent of American women served in the Gulf War. They were mainly assigned to logistics, maintenance, intelligence, communication teams and medical units10. A slightly smaller group was deployed in the Persian Gulf. Women participated in the initial invasion into Kuwait and Iraq. They were assigned to forward support units in the following specialities: transport of personnel by helicopter, equipment and supplies, air defence artillery, military police, intelligence and special operations.

It is important that the debate on the role of women in the military continues in South Africa. However, affirmative action should not be reduced only to the issue of their participation in combat, as there are many other positions that can be occupied successfully by women.


Following the multi-party negotiations and the JMCC process, senior military personnel of the former SADF repeatedly emphasised the need for an integration process with acceptable professional standards as a condition. The assumption was that guerrilla and TBVC forces lack the requisite professional standards11. Some of these officers are presently opposing affirmative action on similar grounds, namely that it will lower standards and affect combat effectiveness. This attitude raises serious questions about the nature of military professionalism. The concept of military professionalism has been debated extensively and has shown that it cannot be reduced to technical qualities, as is sometimes implied by the SANDF, but should also include political and ethical dimensions.

Despite its recent isolation from the rest of the world, South Africa continues to harbour illusions of "very high standards". The country’s re-entry into international sport, business, tourism, education, police and defence, however, has rudely awakened it to the fact that it is just another developing or even under-developed country. The defence force in particular, faces the task of familiarising itself with international laws, standards of conduct and treaties that are binding on the Republic of South Africa.

Another assumption inherent in the "standards" issue, is that every white officer is a competent professional who has reached his position on merit alone. If the opposite is true of every black officer, the natural inclination is to assume that affirmative action will lead to an inevitable drop in standards. Malan12 pointed out that the extended period of escalating military involvement in Namibia and Angola set the stage for premature command appointments at the sub-unit level, and towards rank inflation in the SADF. It was common for junior officers to be appointed as commanders of counter intelligence (COIN) companies, but difficult to relegate such officers to subordinate roles thereafter. These rapid promotions created pressure for officers to become prematurely qualified for the next rank through course attendance. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, officers also expected promotion every three years. Often, young officers did not have the opportunity to reach more than the minimum level of technical proficiency required by their assignments, and had even less time for the maturation of their value system.


Within the new dispensation, the standards to which the defence force adhere should be judged by the success with which it performs its tasks. Its primary task is to defend the sovereignty of the country and the Constitution, within which the implementation of affirmative action is entrenched.

In the Interim Constitution, Chapter 3 Section 8 (3) (a) it is stated that "this section shall not preclude measures designed to achieve adequate protection and advancement of persons or groups or categories of persons disadvantaged by unfair discrimination, in order to enable their full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms". If the primary task of the defence force is to defend the Constitution, the SANDF should be the first to implement affirmative action.

Military officers in South Africa should accept that the development of a democracy after a prolonged period of oppression and exploitation, requires a defence force that protects the new democratic order and is willing to rebuild a nation with deep scars inflicted by the past. The defence force cannot serve this new democratic order with their traditional praetorian attitudes, which emphasise technical professionalism while exercising discipline without understanding the values which they are commanded to protect and defend. The SANDF can only adequately fulfil its mission if racism and sexism are no longer barriers to appointing the most capable candidates to various relevant positions.


There are specific skills which can only be acquired after long term training and through experience, but there are certain levels within the defence force hierarchy that offer possibilities for the full implementation of affirmative action. Helmut- Römer Heitman13 explored this area in great detail with reference to three distinct levels of the military hierarchy.

The first level comprises "operators" who maintain and operate tanks, planes, radar and weapons systems. This does not have to present long term problems for new entrants, since the requisite technical skills can be gained with adequate and proper training within a number of years.

On the second level, the "commanders" who effectively run the armed forces on a daily basis in times of war and peace are encompassed. They are responsible for developing doctrine and designing relevant systems and training programmes. These are submarine captains, air force squadron leaders, battalion commanders, technical experts and intelligence, operations and logistics staff officers. These positions cannot be filled easily or quickly, since they depend on training and extensive practical experience in a variety of roles. At this level, new entrants could be supervised and trained by senior staff for a given period of time.

The third level is made up of "generals": heads of the army, navy, air force, and medical services, the chiefs of major staff departments and some other senior officers. These positions will present little difficulty for new entrants since they entail a mixture of military and political skills and require "defence generalists" rather than "defence specialists".

Appointments of new entrants to the general staff will serve to satisfy the political and moral imperatives of the new South Africa without drastically affecting "combat effectiveness". Even the question of "combat effectiveness" needs to be questioned particularly in the light of the absence of an external threat in the next five years against South Africa.

After independence in Zimbabwe, members of the liberation armies were successfully appointed as deputy chiefs in certain key staff positions. The "white" heads of these posts were expected to prepare their deputies to replace them within a given number of years. It minimised resistance to affirmative action by "white" staff, while ensuring that black officers were properly trained. South Africa can learn from this experience.


Opponents of affirmative action argue against the implementation of a system which has failed in many countries and organisations. It often failed because affirmative action programmes were not prioritised as integral to organisa-tions’ plans for renewal. They usually resorted under general social responsibility programmes. Therefore, blacks who were recruited were not expected to perform, but rather to act as paid representatives of the black community. Affirmative action programmes also saw develop-ment simply as equipping black people with certain skills and then expecting them to perform in an environment which remained fundamentally unchanged. In most cases, the environment may not only be alien, but also completely hostile.

Most of the attitudes that plagued the traditional approach to affirmative action emanated from the fact that the advancement of blacks was perceived as a nuisance factor to be managed by organisations. It was not perceived as a strategy that would ultimately determine the survival and growth of the organisation. It is, therefore, important to design and implement affirmative action in a manner which takes account of these attitudes.



No distinction should be made between normal organisational strategic planning and an affirmative action programme. If the rapid and speedy promotion of incompetent black officers for political expediency is the only concern, the two exercises can be separated. But if affirmative action is to be implemented correctly, it should be included in normal organisational strategic planning. In such planning, identifying the sectors from which its manpower will be drawn, is important. Thereafter, research and development plans and a manpower development plan in accordance with the objectives of the SANDF should be formulated.

One of the reasons why the traditional approach to affirmative action has failed, is the perception of defence managers that it is merely an effort to fulfil social responsibility, "a personnel department issue". The challenge facing the SANDF is to position affirmative action strictly as an issue within organisational strategic planning.

Affirmative action failed in many countries and organisations because of an obsession with quick solutions. Organisations seemed to be involved in a race to produce black officers and results are expected in an inordinately short time. Affirmative action, however, is a process, not a historical event. The huge pool of unskilled blacks, one of the many legacies of apartheid, is going to take decades to be fully and adequately addressed.


Affirmative action programmes should embark on interventions designed to transform corporate culture to be receptive to cultural diversity. The birth of the "new South Africa" created the assumption that the old South Africa suddenly died on 27 April 1994, and that we were all "born-again". Change, however, takes longer to effect and it is therefore useless to promote black and women officers to higher positions while the organisational culture within the SANDF remains the same.

Some white officers can be expected to use all possible means to sabotage change in the organisation, unless properly prepared for it. Training programmes need to be expanded in an effort to enable everyone to accept the need for change.

Black and women officers should be taught that their colour and sex will not afford them special privileges. Officers should know that affirmative action will not mean employing more and more incompetent blacks and the redundancy of more and more competent whites. All fears should be openly discussed, regardless of their origin.

The pretension exists in the SANDF that it is possible to start on a clean slate. There is no clean slate - everyone is consciously or unconsciously carrying "babies" from the old into the new South Africa. The past cannot be ignored. Assumptions of racial inferiority and superiority are still present, and these should be openly and constructively debated in forums facilitated by professionals so that a common value system can be developed that is applicable to the military environment. It is critical that everyone is involved in the development and implementation of an affirmative action programme, so that the issues pertaining to it are clearly understood.

Practically, affirmative action programmes should include training courses on the management of cultural diversity and a component aimed at maximising the performance of disadvantaged groups. These training courses should be compulsory for all officers up to the level of general staff. Commanders should also be held accountable if they fail to meet the specified goals of the programme and should be liable for dismissal if they tolerate any form of racial discrimination within their units.


An affirmative action programme cannot sustain itself and needs all the support that an organisation can muster, both on a moral and infrastructural level. Every individual is unique with his / her own special talents and attributes that can be utilised for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. "Managing diversity" as a concept, seeks to explore individual values and gain respect for differences. It rejects mere assimilation, seeks to expand corporate culture to accommodate the diversity of its members and encourages individuality.

The SANDF needs to equip itself to manage cultural diversity. There are forms of behaviour that may indicate normal assertiveness in one culture, but in another would be absolutely offensive. If there ever was a melting pot, South Africa is one - it contains the good, the bad and the ugly of Africa, Asia, Europe and America. British historian Paul Johnson#14 sums it up as follows: "South Africa is a microcosm of the global problems which confront humanity in the 1990’s".

Diversity in the SANDF is a strength to be harnessed, not an obstacle. An affirmative action programme, therefore, should not be designed with the purpose of transforming blacks into whites. It must attempt to bring out the best in an individual without corroding that individual’s self-identity.


Affirmative action is a long term strategic plan that demands constant monitoring in order to make the necessary changes. The traditional approach to affirmative action has been dominated by a "spray and pray" attitude, implementing the programme without monitoring and evaluating it and yet expecting the best results.

Some organisations, realising that human beings are complicated, simplified their programmes by dehumanising them. They are acting similar to former US Secretary of Defence, Robert Macnamara, who dehumanised the thorny issue of the Vietnam War in America by concentrating on quantity (for every 1 000 soldiers we send, 100 get killed, so let us send 10 000 soldiers to finish off the job quickly). This is an important lesson for the SANDF, as some senior officers would merely like to monitor the numbers. The adequacy of support mechanisms is not evaluated, nor is the changes needed for black involvement in the corporate environment questioned. The formulation of policy congruent with a non-racial outlook is also not monitored.

Once the SANDF decides to embark on an affirmative action programme, the most effective way of monitoring the programme is to select an independent monitoring committee, consisting of the heads of the various services: army, navy, air force and medical service. This independent monitoring committee should meet periodically, to study progress reports from headquarters, branches, regions, and units. These reports will be compiled by the relevant personnel functions of the various units. The committee will then compare recruitment and promotions against pre-arranged targets. The targets themselves must be reviewed annually in order to make adjustments that may be necessary from time to time. Perhaps once a year, there can be a major communication to the organisation generally on progress achieved so far.


This article has attempted to analyse the concept of affirmative action, to position it outside the process of integration and finally present a proposal for an affirmative action programme to be implemented by the SANDF. The notion of affirmative action should not be reduced to a mere advancement programme for the historically disadvantaged. Affirmative action is a strategy, a means to an end, the goal being representativeness and combat readiness within the defence force. Consequently, as a means to an end, it would be acceptable to the extent that it achieves what it sets out to do. It presupposes the existence of a discriminatory setting, and is primarily designed to redress imbalances created by that setting. It is an interim bridging device, a strategic intervention in an abnormal situation, that should be abandoned as a strategy as soon as circumstances permit. Its success cannot be guaranteed and will depend mostly on the way in which the programme is designed, managed and monitored.


  1. V. Maphai, Civil service and affirmative action, Indicator SA, vol 3, no. 4, 1992.

  2. Ibid.

  3. B. Holomisa, speech held at SANCO conference, Port Elizabeth, 1990.

  4. Cape Times, 23 February 1991.

  5. SADF Advertising Survey, Argus,10 September1991.

  6. Vice Admiral P van Z Loedolff, Chief of Staff Personnel, SANDF.

  7. Ibid.

  8. J. Cock, Colonels and cadres: War and gender in SA, 1991.

  9. Ibid.

  10. J. Cock, Feminism and militarism: Some questions raised by the Gulf War, African Defence Review, Issue no. 6, 1993.

  11. L. Nathan, Changing the guards, unpublished article, 1994.

  12. M. Malan, Military professionalism in the former SADF and the need for a new concept, lecture presented to Defence Management Programme, 1994.

  13. H. Heitman, Restructuring the armed forces, African Defence Review, Issue no. 9, 1993.

  14. P. Johnson, A history of the modern world from 1917 to 1990, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.