South Africa country overview

South Africa Government

South Africa information index

Armed forces and security of South Africa

The Republic of South Africa maintains a formidable and well-equipped military, with its army being the most substantial component of the nation’s defense forces. The South African Navy, though smaller, comprises a fleet that includes frigates, submarines, minesweepers, strike craft, and support vessels. The Air Force boasts an array of aircraft, ranging from fighter-bombers and interceptor fighters to helicopters, as well as reconnaissance, transport, and training planes.

In 1994, the South African armed forces underwent a significant transformation. Historically, the military was predominantly white, with a modest permanent force supplemented by a substantial reserve. From the 1970s onward, there was a gradual increase in the recruitment of Black soldiers. The mandatory military service, which was previously exclusive to white males, was abolished in 1994. Combatants from the African National Congress’s military branch, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the Pan Africanist Congress’s military were integrated into the restructured South African National Defence Force. This integration process has faced challenges, with some military professionals viewing former guerrillas as lacking in training and discipline, while issues of perceived racism within the ranks of the established white officers have been raised by some Black soldiers. The 1990s saw the dismissal of several high-ranking officers from the previous regime as revelations of abuses during the apartheid era emerged, although concerns over potential insubordination by conservative elements within the military and police prior to the 1994 elections have since subsided.

During the apartheid era, South Africa developed an array of weapons systems through a combination of private and state-run enterprises, led by the government-owned Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor), largely in response to the international arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council in 1977. The country also clandestinely developed nuclear weapons, constructing six atomic bombs in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the nuclear program was discontinued in 1989, and the existing bombs were dismantled in 1990 by the National Party government in anticipation of a transition to a Black-majority government.

The South African Police Service is a national body that includes both full-time officers and reservists. The racial composition of the force has been approximately balanced between whites and nonwhites, though this reflects an overrepresentation of whites. During the 1970s and 1980s, the police’s role in internal security enforcement placed them in direct opposition to anti-apartheid demonstrators. The security branch of the police gained influence during this period, and a significant number of auxiliary police with minimal training and discipline were recruited. As law enforcement priorities shifted towards maintaining political order, Black communities often found themselves treated as adversaries rather than as citizens deserving of protection. The police were granted broad powers and immunity under the states of emergency declared in 1983, and their actions were widely regarded as oppressive, fueling international condemnation of South Africa’s government. With the cessation of apartheid enforcement, the police faced the challenge of rebuilding trust with communities while combating escalating crime rates.

In the late 1970s, South Africa had one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, with a daily average prison population nearing 100,000. A significant portion of these prisoners were incarcerated for violating the pass laws, which were abolished in 1986 and had restricted the movements of Black individuals in white-designated areas. During the peak conflict periods of the 1980s, states of emergency led to the detention of up to 50,000 individuals without charge or trial. The prison population saw a decline with the release of many detainees in 1990 following the end of the state of emergency, and the constitutional negotiations also resulted in the release of numerous political prisoners. An amnesty policy was implemented for politically motivated offenses committed by individuals of all racial backgrounds during the final years of the anti-apartheid struggle, contingent upon full disclosure of their actions to a public commission. Despite this, the prison population began to rise again in the mid-1990s, and by the early 21st century, South Africa had the highest incarceration rate in Africa and one of the highest globally.

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