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In December Japan announced an increase in its annual military budget to $55bn, a 20% increase year on year. By 2027 it is likely to have the world's third–largest defence budget ($73bn) after the US and China.

The shopping list includes $1.08bn for American fighter jets and $1.6bn for Tomahawk cruise missiles. In essence, Japan wants the offensive strike capability to hit targets in both North Korea and mainland China.

Japan was one of the aggressors of World War 2, starting with its invasion of China in 1931. Beyond the fighting, the Japanese committed brutal atrocities including sexual slavery — the “comfort women” of its colonial empire — and the use of biological warfare. At Nanking, the Japanese army slaughtered between 40,000 and 200,000 Chinese in six weeks.

After the war a defeated Japan turned away from militarism and adopted pacifism. Legally speaking it doesn’t even have an army but self-defence forces. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, written in 1947, states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” No longer.

The Americans are now spending a record $858bn a year on their military. In 2022 China spent $230bn and is rapidly building sophisticated aircraft carriers, fighters and all sorts of other instruments of death. Earlier in month the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies published the results of its war game simulating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. If it got involved the only way the US could beat China was if Japan joined the fight.

Germany’s post-war pacifism is also dead. Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in February last year that on top of its annual budget of €50bn, a one-off €100bn had been allocated to the military. And of course Russia is swinging its industrial-military complex into full gear and eagerly buying Iranian drones and, probably, North Korean ammunition. EU countries continue to arm Ukraine: its stocks of  former Soviet weapons are depleted and there’s not so much left of the Nato kit either.

The world is tooling up for war, with global annual military spending set to exceed $2.1-trillion. It is a seller’s market. Enter the SA defence sector. Somehow, defence minister Thandi Modise expects us to believe that in the midst of a big war the Russian ship Lady R docked at the Simon’s Town naval base to offload ammunition for special forces, and then steamed off to Mozambique with nothing in its hold. The low esteem, the utter contempt, she has for South Africans’ intelligence and common sense is beyond deplorable.

In August, questioned by the DA about arms sales to Russia, Pandor refused to answer, stating that such contracts are secret because of undefined national security issues and confidentiality agreements. While minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele has denied that SA arms manufacturers have sold Russia weapons since the invasion, even if he is telling the truth a whole bunch of other stuff could have been in Lady R, including dual-use materials such as drones and computer chips. And it is not as if he would say if it was arms or ammunition.

Members of the SA National Defence Force. Picture:THE HERALD/LOYISO MPALANTSHANE
Members of the SA National Defence Force. Picture:THE HERALD/LOYISO MPALANTSHANE

Human rights regulations on countries re-exporting SA weapons were relaxed last year, making it easier for the arms to get to war zones such as Saudi Arabia’s nearly eight–year war in Yemen. Given a world searching for weapons and a complacent government committed to secret deals, the future should be bright for the SA defence sector. Yet it isn’t. The sector is an unholy disaster.

Denel is a black hole for money. It has just been bailed out with R3bn, on top of a R1.8bn bailout in 2019. The state’s weapons procurement agency, Armscor, stated in its recent annual report that the “entire defence sector made up of the SANDF [SA National Defence Force], Armscor, Denel and the local industry, are standing at the edge of the abyss”.

Speaking of Armscor, to make a R12.52m profit in the 2021/2022 financial year the state-owned company had to receive a government grant of R1.237bn, hardly an outstanding return on investment. A 12-month fixed deposit at the repo rate of 7% would generate about R86m.

The R47bn spent on the SANDF is equally wasted. According to the auditor-general, it has accumulated R7.9bn of irregular expenditure over the last few years. Not that it makes much of a difference. Decades of under-expenditure, mismanagement, the notorious arms deal and the general running down of infrastructure means the SANDF is a shambles.

To fix the SANDF we would have to double its budget, and R100bn just isn’t there. Writing in Business Day last year, defence analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman warned that the “SANDF is in a downward spiral, which if not reversed will reduce it to a militia”. 

Sure enough, a horrific video surfaced this month showing our troops at work in Mozambique. After a battle with Islamic insurgents and while other SA troops watched, at least one of our soldiers tossed dead insurgents on to a pile of burning rubble and bodies. Given the army’s history of other human rights abuses, such as raping the people they were supposed to protect in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and killing of Collins Khosa during lockdown, the SANDF is already a militia operating in a culture of impunity.

When you get down to it, the solution to our defence sector’s collapse is obvious. Stop throwing good money after bad and close down the sector in its entirety. Abolish the army (don’t worry, no-one will invade), shutter the bankrupt weapons manufacturer and give Armscor one last task. In a world gone crazy, spending trillions on things that do nothing but kill, we can hold an almighty fire sale and sell all the guns, missiles, helicopters and out-of-fuel ships. The revenue would probably cover most, if not all, of the inevitable retrenchments.

What to do with the R50bn plus in yearly savings? The budget is coming up and there will be a lot of hand-wringing over the R350 social relief distress grant. There will soon be about 10.5-million recipients of the grant, costing R44bn. We could add an extra R400 a month. The abolition of the defence sector and a R750-a-month grant would go a long way to ending our real war — the twin scourges of poverty and crime. We deserve a peace dividend.

• Dr Taylor, a freelance journalist and photographer, is a research fellow in environmental ethics at Stellenbosch University

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