South Africa Defense and Foreign Policy

south africa military spending and defense budget

Foreign policy and defense

South Africa is a nation in Southern Africa. Its capital city is Bloemfontein; Pretoria; Cape Town. After South Africa’s democratization in 1994, the government developed good relations with the United States and the rest of the Western world but maintained close ties with countries such as Iran, Cuba and Libya, all of which supported the ANC’s struggle during the apartheid era. The country has in recent years approached China.

south africa military spending and defense budget

In its own region, South Africa has continued to play a leading role but in a different way than during the apartheid era. Then South Africa sought to create concern in neighboring states through sabotage and support to government hostile groups. The ambition was to combat what was seen as the onslaught of the Soviet Union and World Communism via Angola, Mozambique and the ANC guerrillas in neighboring countries.

When the Soviet Union discontinued its involvement in conflicts in the third world, including southern Africa, in the late 1980s, South Africa’s regional policy changed. Now the country is instead investing in increased trade, political contacts and active mediation in conflicts in the immediate area. South Africa-controlled Namibia became independent in 1990. After the abolition of the apartheid system, South Africa became a member of the regional economic development organization SADC (South African Development Community) in 1994.
However, South Africa’s dominance as an economic superpower created imbalances in SADC cooperation and relations with neighboring states have taken some toll.

At the same time, South Africa has mediated in a number of regional conflicts, for example in Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi and not least in Congo-Kinshasa. In 1998, South Africa’s army entered Lesotho to defeat the government at the request of the government. The seven-month effort became bloody and caused international criticism. Also in 2015, South Africa intervened in Lesotho when South African Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa mediated a conflict between the government of Lesotho and a faction of the military threatening a coup.

Nowadays, South Africa’s relations with neighboring countries are generally good, although there is sometimes criticism in neighboring states against the Zuma government acting big brother. Of particular concern has been Zimbabwe and President Robert Mugabe, who continue to hold South Africa behind despite widespread international criticism.

A controversy with neighboring countries arose in the spring of 2015 in connection with riots in several slums with attacks on immigrants from poorer neighboring countries. From the neighboring states came harsh criticism that President Zuma faced by criticizing the neighbors’ leaders for their citizens feeling the need to leave their homelands.

In 2010, South Africa became a member of Bric, the informal association formed by the emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India and China as a counterweight to the rich countries’ consultative bodies G8 and G20. As a result, the group changed its name to Brics. The current government has placed great importance on Brics, allocated a more anti-Western tone and, in an international context, has chosen to ally with the other members. South Africa has repeatedly refused to give visas to Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who was invited by his good friend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. One reason is that South Africa does not want to clash with China, which has made extensive investments in the country. Trade exchanges with China have also increased and strengthened ties with Beijing.


Prior to democratization in 1994, South Africa’s military service was transformed into a professional army and began to integrate former guerrilla soldiers from the liberation movements ANC and PAC as well as soldiers from the former homelands. At the same time, the number of soldiers was significantly reduced. The integration has been problematic, but the army has nevertheless changed radically.

The defense budget has fallen sharply since the apartheid era, but the Arsenal has been modernized at high costs. The government has made large arms purchases, among other things in 1999 it was decided that 28 Swedish Jas Gripen plan for about SEK 17 billion would be purchased. The order was later slimmed down to 26 planes. The giant order received criticism in South Africa, where many wanted to see the money go to social initiatives. The weapons purchases, which also included corvettes, submarines and helicopters, were also surrounded by allegations of corruption and blackout.

Of the 26 JAS-Gripen planes, 12 were in the bag for a long time in 2014 as there was no money to fly. In the same year, only six pilots were qualified to fly the plane.

During the apartheid era, when the UN targeted an arms embargo on South Africa, the country built up an extensive arms industry. It has been partially privatized and switched to civilian production. But arms exports have continued, even to warring countries, which has attracted international criticism.

South Africa previously had a nuclear weapons program, which was discontinued at the end of the Cold War. In 1999, the country signed the International Test Stop Agreement. In 2014, it emerged that South Africa still has 350 kilograms of high-quality weapons-grade uranium in stock. The United States has requested that the uranium be delivered or destroyed, with South Africa refusing to date.

South Africa’s army participates in international UN operations. By mid-2010, operations were underway in Congo-Kinshasa and Sudan. South Africa also has a naval unit that fights pirates off the coast of Mozambique.

In 2013, 14 South African soldiers were killed in the Central African Republic. The presidents of the two countries had agreed on South African military support to defend the incumbent government threatened by advancing rebels. After the defeat, President Zuma dragged home remaining soldiers and the government received harsh criticism at home for the force lacking the necessary equipment and air support.

South Africans also act as mercenaries in other countries even though there is a law that prohibits such activities. So far, however, no one has been convicted.


Army: 40,200 men (2017)

The air Force: 10 450 men (2017)

The fleet: 7,550 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.0 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 3.1 percent (2017)