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Have you applied to join the SANDF? Here are a few things to consider

Craig Bailie
defenceWeb 28th Feb 2023

As a tertiary student approaching the end of a postgraduate humanities degree at a liberal university, I sat across from my academic supervisor and mentor in late 2009, sharing my plans and reasons for wanting to join the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Part of my supervisor’s well-intended response was to say, “Don’t do it, the army is a kak place.”

At the beginning of the next year, in the days following my arrival by military bus at the Oudtshoorn Infantry School, my politics professor’s cautionary words about the army began to ring true.

Criteria for joining the SANDF

Since its publication in late June 2021 on defenceWeb, more than 34 000 people have viewed the guidelines for joining the SANDF through the Military Skills Development System. If this number is anything to go by, the number of South Africans interested in or who have applied to join the SANDF may be close to half the existing number of personnel in the organization.

This is no surprise given South Africa’s high unemployment rate, rising inflation, and growing dependence among South Africans on the state.

To join the SANDF, one must fulfill the following criteria: one must be a South African citizen (without dual citizenship); be between the ages of 18 and 22 and have completed Grade 12, or, between the ages of 18 and 26 and in possession of a three-year tertiary qualification; have no criminal record or pending cases; have no visible tattoos; and, be physically fit and able to comply with the SANDF’s medical fitness requirements.

Further criteria for joining the SANDF are specific to each of the different arms of service, including the SA Army, the SAAF (South African Air Force), the SAN (SA Navy), and the SAMHS (South African Military Health Service).

The entry point to becoming a soldier in the SANDF is the MSDS

South Africans who meet the above-mentioned criteria and who wish to be employed by the SANDF, will likely have responded to the call to apply, before the 28 February 2023 deadline, for the next intake of the SANDF’s Military Skills Development System (MSDS) in 2024.

The MSDS is the primary means by which eligible South Africans join the SANDF. Successful applicants to the programme are required to sign a two-year contract during which recruits undergo military training and education in preparation for their roles as soldiers.

The programme starts with basic military training (BMT), after which recruits receive specialist mustering training. Following mustering training, recruits are stationed at their respective units for further training and preparation for possible deployment, whether within, on, or beyond South Africa’s borders.

A soldier’s mustering is his/her area of specialisation within a corps. Think of corps and mustering as different categories or types of groups within the armed forces. There are three broad types of corps: combat, combat support, and support.
The combat corps includes the infantry, armour, and artillery corps. The combat support corps includes the engineer, intelligence, and signal corps. The support corps includes personnel (HR) and the logistics (log) corps, for example. Each of these corps have further subdivisions, each of which constitute a mustering.

Once the two-year MSDS programme is complete, the SANDF will offer a select number of MSDS recruits, depending on their performance, and the needs and budget of the organisation, a second contract over a longer term (up to ten years) to serve in the full-time force, also known as the regular or permanent force. The remaining recruits will either be offered a contract with the reserve force or will have to exit the organization.

Next year’s MSDS intake will be the twentieth since 2003, when the programme was launched in an attempt at rejuvenating the ranks of an otherwise ageing defence force, and to enhance the SANDF’s deployment capability.

MSDS intakes used to occur annually until South Africa’s Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise, instructed the Department of Defence (DoD) in 2021, to “implement human resources cost-saving measures.” This instruction was given against the backdrop of South Africa’s declining defence budget. The decision to have an MSDS intake every alternate year is among the cost-saving measures the DoD undertook.

Limited information

Aside from the annual press releases calling for applications to the MSDS, stating the eligibility criteria for the respective arms of service, and providing links to the digital applications forms, interested persons wanting to know more about the MSDS have at their disposal the online archives belonging to defenceWeb, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), and the DoD website.

Academic works that have as their primary focus, or, at the very least, cite the MSDS, are few and far between. To my knowledge, there are only three such works published in the MSDS’s twenty-year existence. All three are available online, two at no cost.

The first of these works is a study published in 2015, that Neil Kramm and Professor Lindy Heinecken (both of Stellenbosch University) conducted on “The effect of military service on youth reintegration and employment in South Africa”.

The second is a 2020 Masters thesis from the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Military Science (FMS, housed at the South African Military Academy), that analyses human resources acquisition in the SAMHS.

The third is Professor Heinecken’s book, published in 2020, “South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Military: Lost in Transition and Transformation”. An earlier book chapter by the same author detailing the restrictions on research in and about the SANDF possibly sheds light on why so little academic work has been done on the MSDS.

Towards the end of 2009, while approaching the end of my Masters degree in International Studies, and having decided I was going to join the SANDF, I wanted to know more about the MSDS and what a two-year commitment to the SANDF would entail. There was little I could access in terms of published information, however. For example, defenceWeb published its first MSDS feature in late 2008.

If you have applied for membership in the MSDS, you will have done so with more information at your disposal than what applicants had in 2009. Even so, this article contains at least some critical insights about the SANDF that I gained from my MSDS experience, which you are unlikely to find elsewhere in published form.

Some qualifications

Qualification #1 – I am for, not against the SANDF:
Readers should avoid confusing my critical commentary about the SANDF with a dislike for the organisation or with a general anti-military sentiment. As a Christian realist, I have a healthy appreciation for the military institution. Because of my Christian realist worldview, I regard the armed forces as a necessity for most, if not all countries.

My willingness to take issue with the leadership, organisational culture, and communication of the SANDF is as strong as my desire to see the reform of, renewal within, and subsequent organisational excellence throughout South Africa’s defence force.

Qualification #2 – My purpose is to inform, not discourage:
Inevitably, the critical reflections in this piece will discourage some eligible South African youths from wanting to join the South African military – perhaps even some among those who have already applied for the next MSDS intake, but especially those seeking a supportive organisational culture and an experience that adds value to their career development and employability after leaving the defence force. It is not my intention, however, to dissuade.

The SANDF has been suffering from a skills shortage from as far back as 2010 and continues to face this challenge up to the present day. To turn South Africa’s ailing defence force around, young men and women who can think, who are competent, and who possess the necessary character and courage, will have to enter and stay in the system. This will be essential to turning the proverbial ship around.

Therefore, instead of discouraging, the purpose of this article is to educate and inform those who wish to fulfill a two-year MSDS contract or who are considering a longer career in South Africa’s armed forces, in a manner that I wasn’t informed before joining the MSDS. Put differently, this is an article I would like to have read before starting my journey with the SANDF.
Knowledge is power and forewarned is forearmed. I would rather, therefore, have prospective MSDS recruits know what they may be in for if they join the SANDF. That said, even if I knew in 2009, when I submitted my application for the MSDS, what I know now, I would still have applied and signed the two-year contract on being accepted.

Qualification #3 – My personal experience of the MSDS was relatively brief, geographically limited, and possibly outdated:
The insights I share in this piece are based more on my own experiences than on the experiences and insights of others, although I have used sources from elsewhere to help validate my testimony and reinforce the perspectives I share from my vantage point.

That said, it would surprise me if my fellow MSDS recruits who were part of the 2010 intake, some of whom are still in the SANDF, and the MSDS recruits since, having read this article, could not relate to any of my insights.

Many of the insights I share in this article are based, on or informed by, an experience I had more than ten years ago, and that was limited in time and space. Due to a knee injury, I exited the MSDS after a period of only six months. I spent this entire period on only one of the military bases scattered across South Africa.

Assuming my experience of more than ten years ago was common among a sizeable portion of my fellow MSDS recruits, is it possible that those who will be part of the 2024 intake will have a different, more positive experience? I am not convinced, for at least three reasons.

Firstly, because the constraints on South Africa’s defence budget have become progressively worse. Secondly, I believe the SANDF has failed to undergo the kind of organisational change or reform that is necessary in a constitutional democracy.
Thirdly, because of my experience with teaching officers at the Stellenbosch University FMS (SAMA), many of whom had been through the MSDS.

Qualification #4 – I was part of a company being prepared for special forces selection:
This qualification is significant because membership in the company in question had implications for the regularity and intensity of the physical training (PT) that my fellow recruits and I experienced.

From what I remember about brief discussions with recruits from other companies, their experience of BMT was more relaxed and less strenuous than the experience of recruits preparing for special forces selection.

Qualification #5 – The knowledge and experience I share in this article is not exhaustive:
In this lengthy article, I have included seven key considerations for young South Africans who have decided they want to join the SANDF. These considerations are not exhaustive. I could have added more about my experience of the MSDS and my wider career as an employee of the DoD.

I have not elaborated in this article, for example, on the disparity or incongruence between policy and practice in the SANDF; how authorities at the Infantry School allowed one recruit to leave the base during training because he had to attend court proceedings related to a case involving his alleged involvement in house robbery; the potential for differences in education and language to be an obstacle in the communication between MSDS instructors and recruits; or, why females among South Africa’s youth should think twice about joining the SANDF.

More importantly, there probably are many others, who, having had a much longer career in the SANDF than I have, could add to, or will even want to contest what I have shared with readers in this article.

#Qualification #6 – Some of my experiences, which form the foundation of the observations I share with readers in this article, were and remain necessary for professional military development – others, not so much.

Qualification #7 – There is no such thing as a perfect organization:
That which makes the military unique, placing it under a higher demand for excellence, is that it exists to prepare for and fight war, or lesser forms of armed conflict. Therefore, the military deals with matters of life and death, and national freedom and oppression, more immediately and on a greater scale than any other organization.

That said, no organization or employer is perfect. The same is true of the SANDF. Accepting this fact will help alleviate any unnecessary frustration that one might experience as a soldier or employee of the SANDF.

Having shared the above qualifications, I will turn to the purpose of this article. This is to share with young South Africans who have decided they want to join the SANDF, some things they ought to be aware of and consider before they make a two-year commitment to serving in South Africa’s armed forces. If you get accepted to the MSDS, this commitment commences when you sign a contract shortly after you arrive in early 2024, at the military base where you will be stationed.

Are you willing to kill and ready to die?

The primary and ideal objective of the armed forces is the exercise and management of violence or lethal force, whether in the defence of a country and its citizens or, more broadly, in pursuing a country’s national interest.

Irrespective of the merits, armed forces around the world are increasingly involved in military operations other than war (MOOTW), aimed at furthering human security. This doesn’t deny, however, that any and every military must be prepared for war, and, by implication, every soldier must be prepared to kill or be killed.

Therefore, these are the first and most significant questions to reflect on when deciding whether to join any military, including the SANDF: Are you willing to kill? To what end or for what purpose are you willing to kill? Are you ready to die? And, to what end or for what purpose are you willing to die?

Are you willing to kill?

Asking yourself whether you are willing to kill is different from asking yourself whether you can kill. Equipped with the necessary strength and/or tools, anyone can kill another human being.

Even so, killing within the context of the military profession – meaning, as part of a collective and in a manner that fulfills carefully planned military objectives designed to serve the national interest – requires training with others over a substantial period. The MSDS programme is the beginning of such a professional journey.

The question of whether one is willing to kill is moral, ethical, and philosophical in nature. If, for example, you are one among the 85.6% of the South African population that professes to be a Christian, the question of killing also involves a religious dimension – it becomes a question of one’s Christian faith and worldview.

If you are unwilling to end the life of another human being, including but especially in the context of the military profession, or, even if you are doubtful about whether you are willing, you should probably not join the SANDF or any other military. If you do join the SANDF, you should at the very least steer clear of the SANDF’s combat corps, which is designed and trained for armed combat.

For what reasons are you willing to kill?

If you are willing to end the life of another human being, the next question to confront is this: to what end or for what purpose you are willing to kill as a soldier? Put differently, what will your motive be for killing as a soldier in the SANDF?

The ends and purposes for going to war or deploying on any kind of military operation that may involve the death of an enemy of the state will differ from one national context and military to the next. Are you willing to kill while serving as a soldier in the SANDF? In addition to being a moral, ethical, philosophical, and for some, a religious question, this also becomes a political or ideological question.

The question is political or ideological in nature because the SANDF, like any other military, has always been an instrument of foreign policy, and is increasingly also an instrument of domestic policy.

Government is largely responsible for shaping and determining foreign and domestic policy. Therefore, if you decide to serve in the SANDF, which is an instrument for executing government policy, both foreign and domestic, you must be willing to serve, and by implication, kill on behalf of the government of the day.

There are at least three key, related things to consider when deciding on whether you are willing to serve the government of the day as a soldier in the SANDF. Firstly, can you align your values and convictions with the ideology, culture, and/or policies of the government of the day?

Secondly, does the government of the day serve ‘the people’ (your fellow South African citizens) or not? You may be deployed into a context where you cannot but kill for reasons other than the defence of South Africa and its citizens or pursuing the national interest, or where you are explicitly commanded to kill for reasons other than these.

Thirdly, do you trust South Africa’s incumbent government? Many South Africans don’t. If for whatever reason, you are unwilling to serve, and therefore, kill under the sanction of South Africa’s incumbent government, you should not join the SANDF. At the very least, you should consider postponing your application to the MSDS..

I applied for the MSDS in 2009 and was part of the following year’s intake. Although I consider myself to be patriotic, I wanted to join the SANDF not so much to serve my country (and by implication, the government that we now know had no intention of serving the South African citizenry), but to gain experience as a peacekeeper.

Nevertheless, I understood that joining the SANDF would bring me more closely under the yoke of the South African state. I believed, however, that I possessed the willingness and determination to refuse orders that I perceived to be unethical or unjust, or that were contrary to my Christian faith. Importantly, I was willing to face the consequences of refusing such orders.

One must be careful, therefore. Having determined the willingness to kill and having gained through military training the ability to kill effectively and efficiently as part of a collective, the soldier, who is first-and-foremost a human being, must consider, with the knowledge at his/her disposal, and from one government-sanctioned military operation to the next, whether the military operation and the killing that the operation may involve, is justified.

Writing from a Christian perspective, the responsibility for taking another human life will ultimately rest with the individual, even if the taking of that life was sanctioned by the state and at the behest of a military commander.

Your willingness and ability to kill must be tempered by an understanding of what constitutes just war and military ethics more broadly, and the courage to refute an unjust or unethical order that requires you to kill another human being.

As a start, to assist you with your thinking and decision-making in this regard, I recommend introductory readings on Just War Theory (see here and here) and watching this lecture by Ira Chaleff on intelligent disobedience. Furthermore, completing some of these online courses will add value to your perspective of the military profession. I will have more to say about courage further down.

Are you ready to die?

Death is a certainty. What remains uncertain is when and how one will die. This is why being prepared for death is important, not only in terms of having your personal affairs in order. The concern here is more with being ready in a material or temporal sense.

For the Christian at least – someone who believes in an afterlife that, for every person, will involve one of two possible destinations – being ready for death is a matter of eternal significance. In this instance, the concern over being ready for death is more spiritual than material in nature.

If you’re going to join the SANDF, dying in combat, while on a peace mission, or even while stationed at your unit or undergoing military training, becomes a very real risk. You need to understand and accept this risk before accepting employment with the SANDF.

For what reasons are you willing to die?

Even if, for whatever reason, you consider yourself to be ready for death, you need to ask yourself whether it would be worthwhile if you were to sacrifice your life as a soldier of the SANDF while serving the government of the day.
The three interrelated questions you need to ask yourself when deciding whether you are willing to kill as a soldier of the SANDF are also applicable here: can you align yourself with the South African government’s policy and/or action (in other words, are you satisfied with the purposes for which government is using the SANDF), does government serve ‘the people’, and do you trust the government?

Think, for example, about the relatives of the 15 SANDF soldiers who died during and as a result of the Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013. Given the speculation about whether South African soldiers were in CAR to serve South Africa’s national interest or the business interests of the ANC (see here, here, and here), is it possible that these relatives can be wholeheartedly satisfied that their sons, brothers, and husbands paid the ultimate price for a worthy cause?

More recent controversies surrounding the South African government’s foreign commitments and, by implication, SANDF military activities and operations, include the hosting of the Russian cargo ship, “Lady R” at the Simon’s Town naval base in December of last year and the two-week long joint maritime Exercise Mosi II between South Africa, Russia, and China, that started on 17 February. Readers can find out more about these events here, here, and here.

Engaging in any kind of military operation today with China and/or Russia has significant reputational implications for South Africa as a country (including its citizens) and its defence force (including its soldiers).

The greater the degree to which you, as a prospective MSDS recruit and member of the SANDF, are unable to align yourself with the South African government’s policy and/or action, believe that government does not serve the South African people, and distrust the South African government, the more prepared you will need to be to exercise discernment, courage, and diplomatic resistance, if, after reading this article, you still choose to join the SANDF.

Your acceptance to the MSDS is not guaranteed, even if you’re a strong candidate

As is the case when applying for any employment opportunity, acceptance into the MSDS following the submission of your application is not guaranteed. This is so even if you happen to be a member of an ethnic or ‘racial’ minority and/or have a tertiary education qualification that extends well beyond the three years cited as part of the MSDS eligibility criteria.

My application to the MSDS, as a ‘white’ 26-year-old with a Masters degree in International Studies, was unsuccessful. I got into the MSDS because I was determined to get in. I phoned a General (whom I didn’t know) and managed to convince her that I should be accepted into the system.

There are at least two reasons why you should curb your optimism about being accepted into the MSDS, even if you believe you’re a strong candidate.

The first is the ongoing budgetary constraints facing the SANDF and the implications of this for the number of applicants the SANDF can accept into the MSDS. In 2013, then Minister of the DoD, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, encouraged youth attending a Youth Day gathering to join the SANDF but also acknowledged that “budgetary constraints will limit the numbers that can be accommodated.” Since then, the SANDF budget has only become smaller.

The second is the DoD’s employment equity targets. According to this report, the most recent targets are as follows: 65% of SANDF employees must be so-called ‘black’, 10% must be so-called ‘coloured’, 1% must be so-called ‘Indian’ and 24% must be so-called ‘white’.

Furthermore, during the same Youth Day gathering in 2013, Minister Mapisa-Nqakula “indicated the need for the rejuvenation of the SANDF by recruiting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into its ranks.”

In other words, even if based on the eligibility criteria, you’re a strong candidate for the MSDS, you may not be accepted if only because the quota for your demographic group has already been fulfilled and/or because you do not come from a disadvantaged background.

Prepare for culture shock

A simple definition of culture is, ‘how we do things around here’. The military has a unique organisational culture that will require adaptation and will involve some degree of culture shock on your part if you join the SANDF and go through the MSDS.

Google defines culture shock as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

There is literature on the experience of culture shock while soldiers transition between countries when on operational duty, from the military environment back into civilian life, and while soldiers integrate into the academic environment. However, based on a cursory online search, there doesn’t appear to be any literature on the experience of culture shock when joining the military.

One of my earliest memories of arriving at the Infantry School for BMT was my first experience of waking up in the dark of the early morning to hear an instructor shouting, cursing, and violently shaking the gate that led into the bungalow my fellow recruits and I were occupying. My immediate thought while waking up to the raucous was, “This person is here to kill us.” This event was one among several that contributed towards the culture shock I experienced as an MSDS recruit.

If you become an MSDS recruit, and unless you have grown up in a family or household where your parents or caregivers insulted and broke you down regularly; where they restricted your physical movement; where you were constantly sleep deprived because you were waking up at 02:30 after having gone to bed no earlier than 23:00, to commence with PT at 03:00; where the time you were given to eat your meals was significantly limited; and where you slept in a room with others from different socioeconomic backgrounds and with different worldviews from yourself, you will experience culture shock as a recruit in the MSDS.

Part of the culture shock you will experience will involve being cut off from the outside world. Even within the military base where my fellow recruits and I were stationed during the initial stages of BMT, we were prevented from going beyond the immediate confines of our company bungalows, unless we were accompanied by an instructor. Another measure military authorities at the Infantry School took was to confiscate recruits’ cell phones.

The SANDF may have valid training reasons for cutting you off from the outside world and confiscating your cell phone. The latter measure also helps the organisation, however, if it means recruits won’t be able to report to those beyond the confines of the military base, acts or conditions that are unjust and/or beyond the norms of training for military professionalism.

For example, before our cell phones were confiscated at the Infantry School, I took damning images of the showers in our bungalow. These images have since been published in the popular press. I describe the images as damning because they revealed something negative back then and even today about the state of political governance and military leadership in South Africa.

Set aside your preconceived ideas about what soldiering in the SANDF might be like. If only because of the reality of culture shock and everything that contributes towards it, do not make the mistake of underestimating how challenging BMT in the SANDF can be.

Furthermore, when/if you are in the MSDS, try to not let the experience of culture shock get you down. Whatever you do, don’t run away, and don’t go AWOL (absent without leave). I often felt like I was in prison at the Infantry School. And yet, despite having had the opportunity to run away, whether because of dilapidated infrastructure or incompetent security guarding, the thought of doing so never crossed my mind.

Had I run away, I would have missed out on the valuable experience I gained. Furthermore, I would have faced the difficult task of explaining to any future employer why the DoD dismissed me for going AWOL.

If, for whatever reason, you choose to leave the employ of the SANDF during your MSDS contract period, do so using the established procedures, no matter how frustratingly long it may take for SANDF personnel to follow and complete these procedures.

The SANDF does not have your back

Falling into formation during BMT is a regular occurrence. Having recruits line up, face the front, and be quiet, is necessary for instructors to manage their subordinates and is part of instructors forming military discipline among recruits.

During the initial weeks of BMT, while my fellow recruits and I were still adapting to the new environment and the rules and regulations that accompanied it, instructors would have to repeatedly reprimand and reassure us after we had fallen into formation, “Don’t look behind you, look in front of you, the army has your back!”

The SANDF does not have your back. If you’re adamant that you’re going to join the MSDS, and if after completing your two-year contract, you sign-up for a longer period with the SANDF, you must receive any claim that the SANDF has your back with a pinch of salt and from there, proceed with caution.

Even if the SANDF had the necessary number of competent and values-driven leaders to make it a reliable and trustworthy organisation – one that has your back – it still wouldn’t have the financial resources to look after its soldiers as it ought to.

One reason why I offer this cautionary note is my experience of physical injury during BMT and the total absence of willingness and/or ability to adopt a scientific approach to my recovery, both on the part of the military medical practitioners and the instructors at the Infantry School.

I suspect strongly that my injury, which started at my right ankle and progressively worked its way up to my knee, resulted from a combination of the extensive amount of running and drilling we were required to do and the fact that I was required to do it with SANDF issued army boots that were too small. Doing a lot of running and drilling in the army should be expected. Doing so in boots that are too small…not so much.

Having reached the point where I was limping, I was allowed to report to sickbay. Following consultation with and examination by a SAMHS doctor, I was sent to the sanitorium for three nights, during which time military personnel fed me painkillers and sleeping pills. Given the constant sleep deprivation my fellow recruits and I were being put through, being allowed to sleep during the night and day was heavenly. It didn’t do much, however, if anything, for the healing of my knee.

Furthermore, having returned to my bungalow after spending three nights in the sanitorium, with a ‘light duty’ note from the military doctor, only meant that instead of instructors having me run during PT, or from one point to another as we recruits moved between our daily activities, I would now walk while carrying what everyone came to know as a “biscuit”. This is a large rubber-like brick with the dimensions of a standard-size hi-fi speaker that is more-or-less 40 kg in weight.

At the first opportunity recruits were given to leave the base over a weekend, I made arrangements to see a private orthopaedic surgeon, who, following a technetium scan, diagnosed me as having a stress fracture in the proximal tibial metaphysis.

The doctor’s report, which instructed I be given the necessary rest and rehabilitation, including “cross training with a bicycle for approximately 6 weeks,” brought me great relief. I submitted the report to my superiors at the Infantry School and only then, was I given the rest from physical activity that I needed.

Needless to say, the Infantry School didn’t have a bicycle to assist with my rehabilitation. Being someone who looked forward to a long life that included ongoing physical exercise, and out of concern for the well-being of my knee, I tendered a letter of resignation shortly after submitting the doctor’s report.

The experience I had around my knee was not the only one that spoke to negligent and/or ignorant military leadership and the absence of, or unwillingness to follow, a scientific approach to PT and military activities more broadly.

I recall hearing a fellow recruit telling a special forces instructor that he had flu-like symptoms and wanted to report to sickbay. The same instructor responded that the recruit should continue exercising and “sweat it out”. If you’re interested in the dangers of exercising while ill, or even too soon after having recovered somewhat from illness, start reading here.

On another occasion, I pleaded with an instructor to allow us to wear our military-issue camouflage caps while completing our outdoor training activities in the blazing hot Oudtshoorn sun. The instructor refused.

Spending substantial amounts of time in the sun without head protection was the norm throughout BMT. Consequently, some of the more fair-skinned recruits suffered sunburn to such an extent that they had scabs on their shaved scalps.

Ten years after my exposure to the MSDS, while serving as a civilian member of the DoD at the Stellenbosch University FMS (SAMA), I experienced the same kind of disregard for subordinate or employee wellbeing.

In February 2020, doctors diagnosed my son, still in utero, with a serious medical condition. In the following month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. No one, at that stage, knew fully what Covid-19 was.

Being aware of the WHO declaration and that Stellenbosch University had suspended lectures and called for an early recess period as a result, and thinking at the time that my son might need medical treatment (even chemotherapy) soon after his birth scheduled for April, I was determined to reduce as much as possible the risk of contracting Covid-19 and taking the virus home with me.

Initially, I requested permission from FMS/SAMA authorities to work from home. Following their denial of my request, based on ‘higher orders’, I asked that they allow me to teach my students virtually, from the relative safety of my work office. This request was also denied. I insisted, however, that I would only be willing to teach my students virtually.

The result was back-and-forth correspondence for more than a year between me, authorities at the FMS/SAMA, and authorities within the wider DoD. FMS/SAMA leadership suspended me from teaching academic modules. Furthermore, having reported me to the relevant office within the DoD, I was summoned before a board of inquiry with the prospect of facing disciplinary action.

Imagine my sense of injustice and feeling of indignation when, following my resignation from the DoD in May 2021, I came across this news report, in which the author writes, “The Military Academy in Saldanha is thus far the only [SANDF military base] that uses the University of Stellenbosch’s computer system, where the students study online and the lecturers remain at home.”

You may, for whatever reason, believe recollections of my personal experiences as an employee of the SANDF are anything but trustworthy. These same recollections, therefore, may not convince you that the SANDF probably won’t and cannot have your back. Consider then the matters detailed in the underlying and chronologically presented news reports, and their implications for the experiences of soldiers and employees of the SANDF:
• Missing soldier found dead in his room — a month later
• Central African Republic: Is this what our soldiers died for?
• Documents reveal Gupta plane was cleared by SANDF after all
• The SANDF’s base of shame
• SA soldiers died in CAR while generals dithered
• SANDF mum on serial rapist claim
• Groundbreaking headscarf victory for Muslim women in SANDF
• Sexual misconduct report says SANDF culture needs reform
• Former general calls for thorough investigation into Battle of Bangui, in which 15 South African soldiers died
• SANDF’s ‘sick’ training camps defy lockdown
• Soldiers claim Operation Prosper a shambles, with lack of food, vehicles and uncertainty around who is in charge
• Back to Cuba: SANDF returns irregularly procured Covid drug worth R228m
• “Consequences” sought for 1 Mil RAMP non-performance
• SANDF warns of low morale as its facilities deteriorate
• SANDF averts salary payment crisis

Every employee wants to believe the best about their organisation. However, believing the SANDF has your back will give you a false sense of security and this can be dangerous. As far as possible, you need to learn to look after yourself and rely on trusted individuals (whether inside and/or outside the SANDF) to have your back while you progress through the MSDS or a longer-term contract with the SANDF. Otherwise, you may get hurt, suffer, or even die unnecessarily.

Be careful about what or whose example you follow

Being careful about what or whose example you follow means being careful about what type of leadership or influence you accept. This influence will range from the influence exercised by the Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF (the President of the Republic of South Africa), through to your military unit, wing, and platoon commanders, down to your fellow recruits with whom you share a bungalow or a tent.

Whether you recognize or believe it now or not, if you join the SANDF, for the duration of the MSDS or beyond, you will have the kind of experience and be part of an organisation that is going to mould and shape you into a different person from the one you are now. It is going to be up to you to decide whether this moulding and shaping will be for better or worse.

Since leaders are especially responsible for determining an organisation’s culture, being careful about whose example you follow also means being careful about the degree to which you adopt, and therefore, support, the SANDF’s organizational culture.

Crudely put, and theoretically speaking, the purpose of military training is to turn you into an effective and efficient killer. Therefore, coming under the influence of military leaders and the wider organisational culture is inevitable. If you are being honest with yourself about wanting to become a soldier, coming under this influence will be necessary and desirable, to a point. The challenge is knowing where this point is.
Since the MSDS is about learning what it means to be a soldier and becoming one, it will be difficult for you, as a recruit, to discern those moments where the influence of your military leaders and the organisational culture is not beneficial to your professional military development.
The best advice I can give is based on my personal experience and a quote taken from the late United States (US) Marine Corps veteran and best-selling author of war novels, Anton Myrer, that places professional military development second on a priority list: “If it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being – try to be a good human being.”

My advice is that you ask yourself the following related questions whenever the need arises, whenever you feel uncertain about whether the example or instruction you are expected to follow is appropriate or not: “Does this align with my values? Is it beneficial or detrimental to the maintenance and/or development of my good character?”

If the answer to either or both questions is ‘no’, you probably shouldn’t, in that instance, follow the lead or example of a peer or a higher-ranking member of the SANDF. If the need for asking these questions and answering them in the negative arises often, you may need to think about whether joining the SANDF was the right thing to do and consider a different career path. Rather have certainty about whether you should join the SANDF before accepting an invitation to board a bus destined for a military base in early 2024.

At least three instances of damaging leadership examples from my time as an MSDS recruit undergoing BMT come to mind. All three speak to negative aspects of the SANDF’s organisational culture, evident across reports in South Africa’s news media, and that I witnessed during my tenure as a faculty member at the FMS/SAMA.

The first is when one instructor, during the initial weeks of BMT, told us recruits that whenever necessary, we must take for ourselves what we need. One possible interpretation of such a statement is that one must steal that which one has determined is necessary to steal. The advice or instruction that the instructor gave was hopelessly lacking in clarity and qualification.

I suspected then, as I do now, that what the instructor was trying to say, or what he could have said more explicitly, is that if we were to find ourselves at war or in armed conflict, we should be prepared to take what doesn’t belong to us when our survival, and by implication, military victory, depends on it. Even the ethic of this more explicit statement is open to debate and qualification.

I wonder about the extent to which MSDS recruits interpret a statement like this as a justification for stealing. If you apply to the MSDS and your application is accepted, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that stealing can be easily justified, or can be justified at all. Ideas, communicated through words, whether competently or not, have consequences.

For example, being the last MSDS recruit to return to the Infantry School following the Easter holiday break, I found that almost all the military kit I had left in a lock-up room for safekeeping before going on leave, had been taken by one or several of my peers.

The second instance of a bad leadership example occurred on an evening when our platoon commander called us into the bungalow washing area to prepare us for the next day’s written assessment. What did this preparation involve? He read out the questions we were going to be given at the commencement of the next day’s test and from there, proceeded to read out the answers to the same questions, all while giving us the time we needed to write down what he was saying. He then told us to go back to our rooms and “study”.

I cannot recall whether I objected to this problematic approach to teaching and learning. If I didn’t, I should have, and I should have done so to the point where I respectfully excused myself from the ‘study session’ to avoid being complicit in corruption.
The third instance involved the same platoon commander, who, on a surprisingly relaxed Friday evening, intimidated and coerced each of the recruits in our bungalow to hand over to him at least one junk food item from our respective stockpiles.

Is the inculcation of a culture of theft, dishonesty, and extortion in the SANDF, starting possibly at the level of or as early as the MSDS, one reason why South Africans who are interested in news about the South African defence force, will regularly come across media reports concerning corruption and irregular/fruitless expenditure, and perhaps less regularly, academic cheating (see here and here) in the SANDF?

Is the inculcation of this kind of culture why, during my tenure as a faculty member at the FMS/SAMA, I experienced a sense of entitlement among students in the days preceding tests and exams, and why my colleagues and I were regularly confronted with plagiarism among students (not unique to the SANDF), at least as high as the level of the Masters programmes?
Completing the MSDS won’t necessarily increase your employability

Historically, the MSDS has been marketed as a “national skilling programme…also meant to offer the youth a greater chance of employability outside the DOD by the end of the contract.” Based on my experience of the MSDS, I have always viewed with cynicism the claim that graduating from the MSDS increases employability.

My cynicism was affirmed in 2015 when Neil Kramm and Professor Lindy Heinecken published their research findings. Included among these findings was their conclusion that “the skills acquired during [MSDS] military training is of limited market value.”

Finally, you will require courage

Courage is “not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.” Late US Republican Senator John McCain (also a US naval officer) defined courage as something found in “acts that risk life or limb or other very serious personal injuries for the sake of others or to uphold a virtue.”

There are two types of courage. There is physical courage, “more often employed to defend or obtain a tangible, physical object or condition,” and there is moral courage. Moral courage is concerned with “the defense of a moral principle” and “is defined by the virtues that are its object.” Without moral courage, the risk of physical courage doing harm rather than good, increases.

There are few environments in the world today, be they geographical or cultural, where persons wanting to live dignified and meaningful lives do not require moral courage. If you are going to join the MSDS to gain military experience and skills while protecting, defending, and holding onto your values, principles, and good character, you are going to need moral courage. As a member of the SANDF’s MSDS, you will need moral courage as much as, if not more than, physical courage.

Yes, deference before authority and loyalty to an organisation are good things, especially in the military, but only up to a point. Exercising deference and loyalty shouldn’t involve sacrificing one’s morals or ethical principles, nor should it involve blind obedience.

You may experience moments in the SANDF, as you will in any other organisation, where you will need to set notions of deference and loyalty aside and disobey instead. This will not be possible without courage.

If you have applied for the MSDS, assuming the SANDF accepts your application, and assuming you haven’t been deterred by this article, commit, before arriving at your military base in 2024, to being morally courageous in the face of temptations and/or notions of obedience and loyalty that have the potential to draw you away from the values and principles that you consider important.

If you don’t yet know what values and principles you consider important, I strongly recommend that you suspend your thinking about joining the SANDF until you have a better sense of who you are as a person and what you are willing to stand for.

In an article that medical doctor Gordin Eadie authored in 1945, he wrote, “If they don’t stand for something, they will fall for anything.” It is appropriate, given the purpose of this article, that Doctor Eadie was referring to war veterans.

In closing, I think again about what my professor told me before I applied for the MSDS in late 2009 and joined the SANDF in early 2010 – “the army is a kak place”.

Despite the challenges I have outlined above, I appreciate my short time as a recruit in the MSDS for two reasons. Firstly, I knew then, like I know now, that I was meant to join the MSDS. Secondly, the time I spent in the MSDS equipped me with knowledge and experience that I would not otherwise have had, and that I continue to use today, specifically because of my ongoing interest in leadership and military affairs.

As human beings living in a fallen world, we may, and often do experience our occupations – including those chosen for the short term – for example, a stint in the military – as unpleasant, or even traumatic.

This does not necessarily imply, however, that we should not pursue these occupations. I hope this article will help you to think more carefully and clearly about whether joining the MSDS from 2024 and pursuing a military career in the SANDF is the right thing for you.

_________________
How come every time my ship comes in, I'm at the airport?


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