Rationalisation in the SANDF: The Next Challenge1

by Col L B van Stade
Senior Staff Officer Rationalisation, SANDF

Published in African Security Review Vol 6 No 2, 1997


Rationalisation is inevitably a painful and often traumatic experience for the individuals concerned. The improved processes and cost-effectiveness that are sought after and often realised by such rationalisation initiatives are also often forgotten when discussing these actions in retrospect. Depending on the number of personnel involved and the time available to execute such reductions, these accusations could also be the lasting impression of the imminent SANDF rationalisation exercise, regardless of the actions taken to accommodate the needs of its members, while establishing an adequate, appropriate and affordable defence force for the country. They also seldom consider the other improvements that the Government could attain by reallocating funds previously destined for defence.

his article provides an overview of the preparation for rationalisation of the SANDF from a human resources perspective. This is achieved by sketching the background to rationalisation initiatives and their progress. The methods and approach used during this process will be described and, in conclusion, some areas of concern that still exist, and which should be rectified in order to achieve a successful transition, will be pointed out.


In April 1994, seven forces were combined into one united South African National Defence Force (SANDF) according to the Interim Constitution of 1993. Obviously, the merger has caused some imbalances in the staffing of the new SANDF, especially among soldiers of the former SA Army. At the same time that the ongoing physical integration has been taking place, the organisational transformation of the SANDF is debated and planned based on the White Paper on Defence, and spearheaded by the Defence Review process, which will pay specific attention to the threat to South Africa and the role of the military in the country's new democratic society. Obviously, the size and shape of the new SANDF Permanent Force which will direct the imperatives for rationalisation, will be derived from the force design and force structure resulting from this process. It will have to take into account the constraints of the funds allocated to the Department of Defence and the Government's socio-economic policy. Any imbalances in human resources can therefore only be addressed once the SANDF has established the required future force size and shape which, in turn, will determine its personnel requirements.

The contemporary incremental reduction of funds allocated to defence has rendered the planning of the Joint Military Co-ordinating Committee (JMCC) strategic planning process, that has envisaged a SANDF strength of 90 000, unaffordable. Taking the actual losses sustained after April 1994 into consideration, it is clear that this total could largely have been achieved by natural attrition. However, as the real value of funds allocated to defence have been reduced, it is inevitable that the affordable human resource strength must similarly be reduced. A dramatic reduction of the support capabilities will have to be effected to ensure that any further eroding of the SANDF's operational capability does not make its military potential ineffective. Even though the extent of the anticipated rationalisation is therefore not known, it is expected that it cannot be achieved by a belt-tightening exercise, as has been the case during previous cost-cutting exercises in the former SADF. New and innovative ideas will be required to support an already critically reduced force design, and it is expected that new skills and competencies will be required to staff such an organisation.

Preparation for demobilisation and/or rationalisation processes is therefore made and, in certain respects, some of these actions are already underway. These initiatives take place according to the principles of operational readiness, fair labour practice, transparency, productivity, representivity, and the maintenance of expertise, with all the members and employees from all constituent forces being equally eligible and the main thrust being the retention of people with appropriate high levels of performance and/or potential according to the new demands of the SANDF. Preparation has therefore been made to formalise the administrative and support programmes to implement such rationalisation actions, once the targets are clearly defined.


A Personnel Rationalisation Work Group (PRWG) has been instituted in order to oversee the rationalisation process from within the SANDF. The composition of the PRWG includes representatives from all the constituent forces, the Secretary for Defence and memebrs of the British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT), and is aimed at ensuring a transparent process within the margins of fair labour practices. This work group has recently instituted a sub-work group to make proposals in respect of psychological and social support to members and their families who will be affected by the rationalisation process in the SANDF. A special
Consultation Forum has also been established to negotiate with employee organisations in respect of civilian members that could be affected by the rationalisation process.

Various aspects of the rationalisation process, that will be discussed in some detail later, are already in place. They are:
  • the rationalisation policy has been approved by Cabinet and the Consultation Forum, and ratified by the NDF Departmental Chamber;

  • the SANDF rationalisation process has been designed, approved by Cabinet and the Consultation Forum, and raitified by the NDF Departmental Chamber;

  • an identification procedure for retrenchment of members has been designed and accepted by the Consultation Forum, and has been ratified by the NDF Departmental Chamber;

  • an intra-departmental representation/appeal procedure is in place and has been approved by the Consultation Forum; it has also been ratified by the NDF Departmental Chamber; and

  • the administrative procedure to be followed when seeking assistance from the Special Tribunal has been drafted and is ready for implementation when necessary.
In accordance with the Interim Constitution of 1993, three actions must be undertaken in order to achieve an integrated SANDF: integration, consolidation and rationalisation. It was therefore agreed at the JMCC that rationalisation would only follow after such integration and consolidation were completed. However, due to a number of reasons, the time-scales for the integration process rolled over well into 1996, and rationalisation planning had to adapt accordingly. One of the problems generated by this change was the fact that the Labour Appeal Court, sitting as a Special Tribunal to resolve disputes of rights and interests arising from the rationalisation of the public service, would not be available to SANDF members. This was because the Tribunal was supposed to cease to exist in May 1996. On request of the SANDF, this date has been extended until 1998 for uniformed members, and a request has been registered at the Public Service Commission to extend the date for civilian members of the SANDF as well.


Although the intention of the PRWG is to regulate the rationalisation of the SANDF, rationalisation in respect of force reductions actually started immediately after the 1994 general elections, by way of natural attrition. This was enhanced by means of a voluntary severance package that was introduced during July 1996. It is envisaged, however, that the bulk of personnel rationalisation will occur between 1997 and 2000, depending on the finalisation of the force structure and the availability of funds.


During the rationalisation process, it is essential that the constitutional right of employees shall be respected. For this reason, all possible alternative employment opportunities must be considered for each member affected by rationalisation to ensure the legitimacy and fairness of the rationalisation process.

Rationalisation, seen holistically, is a process of realigning the force structure of the SANDF, and particularly the personnel numbers required for filling of posts in accordance to the newly approved force design and structure, and the new mandate, roles and tasks of the Department of Defence as identified by the Defence Review process and approved by Parliament and Cabinet. With respect to the human resources dimension, rationalisation could therefore take the form of:
  • normal attrition (due to resignations, retirements, deaths, etc.);

  • transfers to other departments, such as the South African Police Service (SAPS) which may have critical shortages of the skills available in the SANDF;

  • demilitarisation of members who could be employed elsewhere in the public service in a civilian capacity;

  • demobilisation;

  • remustering to other areas in the SANDF where critical shortages exist;

  • retraining to accompany such remustering;

  • non-renewal of contacts which could include consultants, term service contracts, etc.;

  • voluntary severance; and as a last resort

  • retrenchment.
Clearly, many of these measures may have a limited impact, since all government departments are facing similar pressures. Nevertheless. the valuable training and skills attained while in military service have collateral value in many organisations and should not be wasted. Retraining via conduits, such as the Service Corps, should therefore form an integral part of any force reductions to ensure the effective retraining of such members.


As it is the intention of the SANDF to utilise retrenchment only as a last resort during the rationalisation process, all avenues to place a member in an alternative position should first be considered. Separation, if required, should be achieved in a manner which inflicts the least possible trauma on an individual and his/her dependants. Cabinet therefore approved the following actions.

The first method of separation is natural attrition, such as resignations, statutory retirements, and deaths. Although some of the posts which will be affected, may be abolished, limited recruitment should continue in certain specialist musterings in order to guarantee adequate experience levels for the future.

The second method is the non-renewal of contracts on expiry. On expiry of a service contract, members who wish to and have performed well, should be afforded the opportunity to apply for a subsequent contract with the SANDF (within the margins of rules regulating the renewal of service contracts). The non-renewal of contracts could be aided by limiting the number of contracts to exclude those members who are unable to adapt to the standards and expectations of military service, coupled to an end to recruitment in such ranks. This method has been in use since the establishment of the SANDF.

The third method is the approved voluntary severance package. However, in the absence of a new force structure, the approval of requests for severance packages must be approached cautiously by the SANDF, especially where no apparent supernumeraries or replacements exist. For this reason, only 5 397 of the recent applications were approved by the Minister to date.

Retrenchment or compulsory severance constitutes the final method. Severance should be executed in such a way that it does not leave any voids with respect to the quality of the remaining personnel, in terms of required operational readiness and effective management of the SANDF. Members presently undergoing bridging training should therefore be granted sufficient opportunity to complete such training and gain sufficient experience, before the bulk of retrenchments are effected. This implies that most of the retrenchments should only occur at a later stage.


It is a natural tendency to consider those members becoming supernumerary (due to the abolition of their posts), as first candidates for rationalisation. However, in the interest of the SANDF and its constituent forces, it was accepted by the JMCC that all serving members, irrespective of their posts, employment and/or service conditions, will be considered for rationalisation. The following approach was therefore approved by the JMCC:
  • The selection criteria, used to decide who will be considered for rationalisation, should be as objective as possible. Furthermore, the criteria should not only apply in respect of past achievements, but also take into account the potential of an individual after he/she has gained essential experience and training.

  • No member shall be considered for retrenchment while disciplinary action against such a member is contemplated, or in progress before sentencing, or he/she is detained pending disciplinary action, suspended from service, or is serving a sentence of detention.

  • Notwithstanding the autonomy of the Arms of the Services, the Intelligence Division and the Chaplain General, consistency in applying a general SANDF rationalisation policy shall be maintained.

  • Members who are still participating in bridging training at the time that the retrenchment period takes effect, shall not be considered for severance unless their course results prove beyond doubt, that in spite of the opportunities afforded, they are not committed to or capable of performing at the required levels.

  • Irrespective of their periods of service in the SANDF, all members shall be entitled to at least one month's notice prior to their last day of service in the SANDF. The stipulations with regard to notice periods as included in this order shall be complied with.
The following principles, which have been accepted by the PRWG and applicable employee organisations will apply during the rationalisation process in the SANDF:
  • The desired size and shape (structure) of the future SANDF forms the qualitative and quantitative target for rationalisation.

  • Rationalisation must actively pursue operational readiness. Cutbacks should therefore occur mainly where they will not have a detrimental effect on the operational capabilities of the SANDF, or the Department of Defence's effectiveness and accountability as determined by the Defence Review process.

  • The envisaged rationalisation programme should not be at the cost of the Department of Defence's capital budget.

  • Rationalisation must actively promote legitimacy through improving representivity, as well as other organisational imperatives.

  • Rationalisation and integration should overlap as little as possible. Because integration is taking longer than originally envisaged, some form of overlap is inevitable, but it should not be significant.

  • The rationalisation process must be completely transparent, fair and equitable. The members of all constituent forces will be equally eligible for rationalisation.

  • The concept of rationalisation should be communicated timely to all personnel, particularly the relevant procedures, criteria and time-frames.

  • The rationalisation programme will be executed by the Chief of the SANDF in collaboration with the Secretary for Defence, under the direction of the Minister of Defence.

  • Changes must be effected in such a manner that the minimum disruption or inconvenience is created for both the employer and employee.

  • Optimal utilisation of all staff must be pursued until the rationalisation process has been completed.

  • The right to retrench redundant employees shall remain the prerogative of the employer.

  • In order to ensure equitable decisions and an effective transition, due cognisance must be taken of the personal circumstances and preferences of employees with regard to their stationing and transfer. This does not preclude the Chief of the SANDF, if it is in the interest of the state and fair labour practice, from exercising his/her prerogative to transfer an employee to a suitable post, provided the employee is afforded the opportunity to make representations, and his/her representations are properly considered.


To ensure that the SANDF can fulfil its mission at all times, it is imperative that the rationalisation process will provide for the retention of requisite qualities. The criteria that have already been approved by Cabinet, and that will be applied in decisions during the rationalisation process, will include the following:
  • the person's level of expertise;
  • past work performance and/or potential and productivity;
  • adherence to course requirements;
  • physical and psychological abilities;
  • disciplinary record ;
  • domestic circumstances, for example area-bound status; and
  • normal age distribution within the personnel structure.
These criteria should not be applied judgementally, but should be substantiated by the person's service record. In essence, the Department of Defence will attempt to balance organisational with individual needs, but with the full realisation that financial resources are limited.


Although many of the support processes already been discussed, there are a number of major issues that still need to be resolved before rationalisation can be implemented.


It is clear that, before any organisation starts to wilfully reduce or re-employ its human resources, it needs to know what its needs will be in terms of quality and quantity. Without knowing what the knowledge, skills and attitude of the members of the new organisation must be at the various levels of the organisation, serious mistakes can be made and competencies that took many years to establish, may be lost to that organisation. This will be especially important if such rationalisation actions are not only aimed at a superficial reduction of numbers within established organisational structures, but also at a radical reorganisation of these structures by means of a re-engineering approach, with the resultant new challenges facing the whole organisation.

It is clear that the former approach is no longer viable for the SANDF and that radical process-based changes will be required to maintain its operational capability. It is therefore imperative that the Defence Review and Transformation Project deliver these needs urgently so that the relatively long process of matching human resources supply and demand may commence with greater clarity.


The aim of representivity is to create legitimacy for the SANDF in the eyes of the total population. However, it is contended that, as the SANDF has been comprised of constituent forces that are in themselves not broadly representative of the population, it is absolutely imperative that the SANDF maintain its operational capabilities while striving for this presently undefined goal of representivity, while still being able to achieve its goals. Creating representivity should therefore not be seen only as a quantitative concept, but also as a qualitative one. When considering the White Paper on Transformation of the Public Service, it is clear that the Government is of the opinion that the present situation regarding representivity in the Public Service (in terms of race and gender) does not create a feeling of co-ownership and legitimacy among the total South African population. Rectifying this area of concern should therefore enjoy special attention during the transformation process of the SANDF. However, it would be of the utmost importance to obtain specific guidelines regarding representivity. This should cover the questions of percentages and/or quotas in terms of race and gender, as well as the extent that former forces should be represented in the SANDF. As an example the following questions could be posed:
  • If the South African population consists of 52 per cent women, does this mean that the SANDF should follow suit?

  • If the SANDF consists of only 13 per cent members from former non-statutory forces, does this mean that only 13 per cent of each rank group should be occupied by these members of these former forces?

  • Should 48 per cent of an occupational group like nurses consist of males, before it will be deemed as representative?
It is also important to realise that, due to longer training phases and implications for occupational safety, it would take longer to create representivity in certain occupational areas (eg pilots and certain technical occupational groups). Deputy President Thabo Mbeki stated at the opening of the Defence Review Consultative Conference in Cape Town that the target date for a representative SANDF is the same as the date envisaged for the completion of the rationalisation process, namely 1999. However, it is clear that this target should be approached carefully as the issue of representivity could have a devastating effect on the performance of the SANDF. The SANDF should embark upon a rational process to ensure that critical capabilities are maintained in future.


The SANDF is obliged to strive for both operational readiness and representivity during its transformation. However, these two concepts could be contradicting each other in the short term, and the question arises as to which one is the most important to strive for. Although the long term objective is to achieve skills, knowledge and experience to optimise both these concepts, the SANDF should be seen as an extension of government policy, and the blending of these two concepts during transformation should be guided more explicitly by the Government. More explicit guidelines are needed in this regard. Time-frames within which integration of these two concepts must be achieved, should also be made available.


It is not possible to uphold military discipline when actions in handling offenders within the SANDF is not clearly defined. Since the integration phase started, the SANDF is experiencing a problem in the interpretation of acceptability of criminal records for purposes of recruitment, placement and non-renewal of contracts. It is the opinion of the SANDF that continuous trespassing of rules and/or the law by a member, should be deemed as a sign that such a member does not fit into the military environment. On the other hand, one should have empathy with those who committed 'acceptable' crimes in the line of duty during the struggle towards democracy. Clear guidelines in this regard is needed.


In accordance with the Interim Constitution, the SANDF will be created by means of a process consisting of integration, consolidation and rationalisation. During the consolidation phase all members will be afforded the chance to prepare themselves to compete for posts in the new SANDF structure. However, due to relatively short time-scales involved for the consolidation phase, it is doubtful whether those members who have been deprived of a proper education in the past, would be in a position to compete for posts on a fair and objective basis. The question arises to what extent the potential of a member should play a role during staffing of the new SANDF structure, and secondly, how such potential could be determinated. Guidelines are needed to clarify this position in order to allow members to compete on a fair basis, while also enhancing representivity.


In accordance with the JMCC decision on rationalisation (which was approved on 22 April 1994), "organisational interests will be of primary importance" during rationalisation. It was accepted that the rationalisation process would be managed along the command and control channels. However, as rationalisation is also a very sensitive and emotional political issue, it is imperative that the required civil control is also applied to this process. The question arises whether rationalisation in the SANDF should be controlled by the SANDF, or by means of a political body of some kind. The Defence Secretariat was created to fulfil this need and the implementation of the rationalisation process could be seen as an important trial run of the concept. However, the Minister will still retain control of the rationalisation process in the SANDF, with certain aspects being delegated to appropriate levels to ensure that the process remains practical. It should be realised that, although the act of composing a new SANDF has a certain political flavour to it, the efficiency and effectiveness with which it is achieved is still the responsibility of the command line. Co-operation between the political and executive levels during rationalisation has been shown in the way the voluntary severance package offers have been handled. The organisation had the opportunity to influence the final decision on the political level by means of recommendation. However, acceptable structures to control rationalisation in the SANDF should be implemented as soon as possible and the mandate of each should be stipulated very clearly.


One of the greatest fears in the human resources environment in the SANDF, is the effects that large scale retrenchments over a relatively short period could have on the functioning of personnel. To replace a retrenched person in a military structure inevitably would give rise to a domino effect of promotions. The reason for this is that it is not possible to recruit a replacement on the open labour market in a horizontal fashion. A replacement for any post in the middle and senior levels of a military organisation could only be qualified for such a position by a carefully planned vertical career-path consisting of exposure to the right mixture of skills, attitudes and knowledge which were gained by military courses and experience. Therefore, if the 'wrong people' are retrenched during large scale initiatives which must be executed within a relatively short time (like in the case of severe budget cuts), the process of effectively replacing such persons could stretch over a number of years. Empathy should therefore be created amongst politicians that choosing the 'right people' during a rationalisation process is of the utmost importance. The only rational way, which is also the only acceptable way in the eyes of labour law, is to rationalise only when clear personnel structures and job descriptions are available against which a person could be measured. Such structures and job descriptions will only be available in the latter part of 1997, and therefore caution should be exercised when confronting the SANDF with large budgetary cuts.


The period prior to, and during any rationalisation effort is most often associated with uncertainty and misconceptions among personnel in the organisation. This was proven during rationalisation exercises in the former SADF, as well as during the recent voluntary severance package initiative. Accurate and effective communication could aid in coping with such uncertainty, and prevent or rectify misconceptions. During the rationalisation process, all communications regarding rationalisation will be approved by the PRWG, and the normal command channel and various direct media will be utilised to facilitate communication. Needless to say, the aforementioned aspects will have to be finalised and approved if communication is going to realise its aim.


In terms of the rate at which the process of rationalisation is progressing the most important problem to overcome is the availability of a final force structure indicating the correct numbers and mustering of personnel needed to support the SANDF force design.

Furthermore, due to the emotional sensitivity and the social effect of rationalisation, a vast number of role players are involved in the clarification of the processes which must be followed during rationalisation. This gives rise to a lengthy process of consultation and approval that must be followed to achieve an acceptable product. The problem is further exacerbated by the threat of possible budgetary cuts which might necessitate the execution of the rationalisation measures before final agreement has been reached on the process.

The SANDF is committed to execute rationalisation in such a way that trauma to its members and their families will be limited to the minimum. In its continuous quest to seek legitimacy in the mind of every South African, many decisions will still be taken, which means that a vast amount of discussion regarding these issues will take place during the preparation to rationalise the SANDF. The Defence Review process will test the decisions to ensure that they are in line with clear political guidelines, as the responsibility for such decisions will be on the political level where it correctly belongs in South Africa's new democratic dispensation.


  1. Edited version of a paper read at the conference on the South African National Defence Force and Transformation, Unisa, Pretoria, 15 October 1996.