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No, South Africa didn’t deploy 70,000 soldiers during Covid-19 lockdown

Several news sites have unfavourably panned the recent deployment of ‘a mere’ 2,500 soldiers to deal with recent unrest.

South Africa’s Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces have experienced days of looting, protests and violence. When the protests first started they were linked to demands that former President Jacob Zuma be freed from jail where he is serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court. 

As of 13 July 2021 at least 72 people had been killed and more than 1,234 people arrested. 

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa on 12 July announced that he would deploy the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist the police in responding to the unrest.

Numerous news websites have compared the current army deployment to that during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown. 

“About 2,500 soldiers have been deployed to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng amid the riots - a mere fraction of the more than 70,000 soldiers that were deployed in 2020 to enforce nationwide lockdown regulations to curb the spread of Covid-19,” reported News24. 

Similar numbers were reported by Aljazeera, IOL and the BBC. Eyewitness News put the number as high as 76,000. The figures have been shared in tweets and YouTube videos.

Are these numbers correct? We checked. 

Confusion between ‘employment’ and ‘deployment’

Darren Olivier, director of defence intelligence and news organisation African Defence Review, told Africa Check that there was confusion between “employment” and “deployment” of the defence force.

“The most important thing to note is that authorising defence force members to be employed for a specific task or mission does not mean that all will actually leave their bases, HQs, or offices and deploy to the field, streets, cities, or foreign countries.” 

Siphiwe Dlamini, head of communications for the department of defence, told Africa Check that the number of people “deployed” represented “actual boots on the ground”. 

An order to “employ” SANDF members meant that they should be made available to be deployed.

8,000 troops deployed during lockdown

In April 2020, media reported that Ramaphosa “deployed an additional 73,180 defence force members” to combat the spread of Covid-19. This was likely based on an order from the president “to employ an additional 73,180 members” of the defence force.

But, as Olivier and Dlamini explained, this does not mean that all 73,180 members were on the streets conducting road blocks, vehicle checks and patrols. They had simply been authorised to be involved should they be required.

Dlamini told us that only around 8,000 troops were deployed during lockdown. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakul put the number at 8,119 in a statement released in May 2021.

SANDF ‘not that big’

Olivier told Africa Check it would not be possible to deploy 76,000 troops as the defence force is “not that big”. 

The department of defence’s most recent annual report shows it employed 73,987 people in 2019/20. Only 37,980 of those were employed in the South African Army.

Olivier estimated that “the defence force can realistically only deploy 8,000 to 9,000 infantry soldiers for any new mission or in cooperation with the police”.

Dlamini could not confirm how many troops could be deployed to deal with a situation. He said it was highly dependent on the situation and what skills or resources were needed. 

In the case of current unrest, he said they had consulted with the police service who had requested approximately 2,500 troops. That number, Dlamini said, could be adjusted as necessary.

Conclusion: 8,000 defence force members were deployed for Covid-19 lockdown

In the wake of widespread unrest in South Africa, the media has reported that only 2,500 soldiers have been deployed in comparison to over 70,000 during the country’s 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

This is incorrect. Just over 8,000 troops were deployed during the lockdown. The department of defence only employs around 74,000 people - not all of whom are soldiers. 

The exact number of defence force personnel that could be deployed in an emergency would depend on the nature of the emergency and the resources required to respond to it.

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