Southern Africa remains highly militarised even though it has reduced military expenditure, weapon holdings, armed forces and employment in arms production. This is because a significant number of small arms still remain in the hands of civilians in many parts of the region, creating a serious obstacle to peace-building.

By Fernando Goncalves

November 1999

Scholars have in recent years tried to grapple with the question of redefining the concept of security, in an attempt to move away from the state-centred notion which places greater emphasis on the military and acquisition of hardware.

New definitions of security include what some scholars now call 'human security', embracing such notions as the need to invest in the human being by way of improving the security of the individual, increased access to social services such as health, education and social welfare.

The predominance of the realist paradigm of security, as the old notion is known, implied that security became subsumed under the rubric of power, based on the assumption of a hard distinction between domestic 'order' and international 'anarchy', a 'state of nature' where war is seen as an ever-present possibility.

In the new security debate in Southern Africa, there have been persistent calls for countries to engage in a meaningful process of demilitarisation, in the form of reduction of the military establishments and for the need to redirect resources from financing huge armies towards investment in social development sectors.

However, there has been opposition from some sectors, particularly from those who insist that the issue in Southern Africa cannot be that of demilitarisation, because the region is not in the true sense of the word militarised. According to this line of thinking, what is needed is not demilitarisation, but a process through which there is a balance between meeting the pressing economic and social needs of the majority of people while taking care of the security needs of the state.

This is the state-centred position, as once articulated by the outgoing South African minister of defence, Joe Modise, when he called on SADC states to build up their armies. Modise argued then that the region needed to arm itself so that the responsibility of peace-keeping did not lie with any one country and for it to be able to protect stability and attract investment.

'No right-thinking person would invest in a country that cannot protect itself,' Modise was then quoted as saying.

And at a time when Botswana was heavily in the spotlight due to its large-scale arms purchases, one of its opposition leaders, the deputy president of the Botswana National Front (BNF), Michael Dingake, had this to say: 'Though I do not know what they (the arms) will be used for, I am not sure we need them ... however we must be on our guard.'

At a recent workshop in Windhoek, jointly organised by the University of Cape Town's Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) and the Berlin International Centre for Conversion (BICC), the participants were unanimous in their call for demilitarisation and for Southern Africa to seek more novel ways of maintaining peace and stability in the region.

They did point out, however, that for demilitarisation to be meaningful and comprehensive, it has to be a collective effort, in which those countries with greater military capabilities should take the lead. For example, South Africa alone is said to have exported US$260 million worth of arms in 1997, including over US$20 million to African countries such as Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda and Uganda.

Additionally, for demilitarisation to be successful, it has of necessity to be mass-based, involving as it should the demilitarisation of civil society as well.

There has been a tendency to take demilitarisation in the classical sense of the term, which implies reduction in arsenals and scaling down of military personnel. However, in Southern Africa, the region remains highly militarised even if in terms of the BIC3D Index it has over the years been able to reduce military expenditure by 30%, weapon holdings by 13%, armed forces by 8%, and employment in arms production by 41%. However, a significant number of small arms still remain in the hands of civilians in many parts of Southern Africa, creating a serious obstacle to peace-building.

'Throughout the region small arms are often the basis of a militarised identity that is lethally connected to culture, gender, political ideology, ethnicity, race and nationality,' says Professor Jacklyn Cock, of the University of Witwatersrand.

This contradiction between institutional demilitarisation and the proliferation of arms within civil society has to do in part with the privatisation of militarism, which is manifest in the growth of private security firms, a reworking of the ideology of militarism, and new forms of violence and conflict. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Fernando Goncalves contributed the above article to the Southern African News Features (16 June 1999, 'The Ideology of Militarism'), published by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare, Zimbabwe.