South African Defence Force

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South African Defence Force
Suid-Afrikaanse Weermag (Afrikaans)
SADF emblem.svg
Official emblem, SADF
Ensign of the South African Defence Force (1981-1994).svg
Disbanded1994 (reorganised into the SANDF)
Service branches Flag of the South African Army (1951-1966).png  South African Army
Naval Ensign of South Africa (1952-1959).svg  South African Navy
Ensign of the South African Air Force (1958-1967, 1970-1981).svg  South African Air Force
Flag of the South African Medical Service (1979-1994).svg South African Medical Service
Headquarters Pretoria, Transvaal, South Africa
State President See list
Minister of Defence See list
Chief of the SADF See list
Conscription White males between 17–65 years of age (1957–1993) [1] [2] (2 years compulsory)
Active personnel82,400 (1986) [3]
Budget US$3.092 billion [3]
Percent of GDP 4.1 from 1966–1980
9.25 in 1987 [3]
Domestic suppliers ARMSCOR [3]
Foreign suppliersFlag of Belgium (civil).svg  Belgium [4]
Flag of France.svg  France [5]
Flag of Israel.svg  Israel [5] [6]
Flag of Rhodesia (1968-1979).svg  Rhodesia (until 1979) [7] [8]
Flag of Switzerland (Pantone).svg   Switzerland [9]
Flag of Australia (converted).svg  Australia [10]
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom [11]
Flag of the United States.svg  United States [12]
Related articles
History Rhodesian Bush War
South African Border War
Angolan Civil War
Mozambican Civil War
Bophuthatswana coup d'état
Ranks South African military ranks

The South African Defence Force (SADF) (Afrikaans: Suid-Afrikaanse Weermag) comprised the armed forces of South Africa from 1957 until 1994. Shortly before the state reconstituted itself as a republic in 1961, the former Union Defence Force was officially succeeded by the SADF, which was established by the Defence Act (No. 44) of 1957. The SADF, in turn, was superseded by the South African National Defence Force in 1994. [13] [14] [15]


Mission and structure

The SADF was organised to perform a dual mission: to counter possible insurgency in all forms, and to maintain a conventional military arm which could defend the republic's borders, making retaliatory strikes as necessary. [3] As the military expanded during the 1970s, the SADF general staff was organised into six sections—finance, intelligence, logistics, operations, personnel, and planning; uniquely, the South African Medical Service (SAMS) was made co-equal with the South African Army, the South African Navy and the South African Air Force. [16]

During apartheid, armed SADF troops were used in countering terror attacks, often directly supporting the South African Police. [17] [18] South African military units were involved in the long-running Mozambican and Angolan civil wars, [19] frequently supporting Pretoria's allies, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) [20] and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). [21] [22] SADF personnel were also deployed during the related South African Border War. [23] [24]


The military was mostly composed of white South Africans, who alone were subject to conscription. [25] [26] [27] The permanent force of the Army was 85% Afrikaans speaking. [28] However, black South Africans were the second largest group, and Asians and Coloured citizens with mixed ancestry were eligible to serve as volunteers, several attaining commissioned rank. From 1971 onwards, several black battalions were raised in the Infantry and Service Corps on a tribal basis, most black soldiers serving in these exclusive tribal battalions, which had black NCOs but white commissioned officers. The first black personnel were accepted into commissioned ranks only from 1986, and then only for serving black soldiers and NCOs. The regular Commission would not be open for Bantus until 1991, and then again they would serve only in black units or Support/Service Support units, to avoid having position of authority over white combat arms personnel. The first black officer to be promoted to lieutenant colonel rank and have command over a battalion sized unit was only appointed in February 1994, by which time the old SADF was already on its deathbed. However, black officer candidates from the various Homeland Forces and from South West Africa/SWATF had been accepted since 1981. [29] Units such as the 32 Battalion incorporated many black volunteers, as did the 101 Battalion. [30] Conscription was opposed by organisations such as the End Conscription Campaign, but overall, white morale remained high—as indicated by the few recruits tried for serious disciplinary offences. [3]


SADF paratroops in training Para Course Image 5.jpg
SADF paratroops in training

Before 1957, the Union of South Africa had relied on small standing cadres for defence, expanding during wartime through the use of white conscripts. During the Second World War the Union Defence Force initially fielded only 3,353 full-time soldiers, with another 14,631 active in reserve roles. [31] [32] These troops were not prepared to fight in Europe proper, as they had hitherto been trained only in basic light infantry tactics and bush warfare. [3] However, Jan Christiaan Smuts proved remarkably resourceful in raising 345,049 men for overseas operations; South African soldiers went on to distinguish themselves as far abroad as Italy and Egypt. [33]

After 1957, the new South African Defence Force was faced with a post-war upsurge in African nationalism, and forced to expand its resources accordingly. [34] In 1963 its total strength stood at around 25,000 men. [3] By 1977, the United Nations was imposing arms sanctions on the republic due to its controversial policy of racial apartheid. [35] South Africa responded by developing a powerful domestic arms industry, capable of producing quality hardware, including jet fighters, drones, guided missiles, armoured cars, multiple rocket launchers, and small arms. [3] [36] SADF units fought in the Angolan Civil War during Operation Savannah [37] [38] [39] and were also active alongside Rhodesian Security Forces [40] during the Rhodesian Bush War. [41] [42] [43] Although both campaigns were strategically unsuccessful, it was clearly proven that South Africa's military was immeasurably superior in strength and sophistication than all her African neighbours combined. [3] Further enlargement and modernisation of the armed forces continued under former defence minister Pieter Willem Botha, who became state president in 1984. [44] Shortly after Botha took office, the SADF numbered some 83,400 men (including 53,100 conscripts and 5,400 non-whites): one armoured brigade, one mechanised infantry brigade, four motorised brigades, one parachute brigade, a special reconnaissance regiment, one Marine brigade, twenty artillery regiments, supporting specialist units, a balanced air force, and a navy adequate for coastal protection in all. [3] In addition, numerous auxiliary formations were trained as support units capable of occupying strategic border areas, including the predominantly Angolan 32 Battalion, [45] Namibia's South West African Territorial Force, [46] [47] and four (Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda) Bantustan militaries. [48] [49]

The former South African Defence Force base in Outapi, Omusati, Namibia. Former South African Defence Force base in Outapi.JPG
The former South African Defence Force base in Outapi, Omusati, Namibia.

During Botha's term, the SADF began focusing on taking a more aggressive stance to the ongoing war against communist-supported liberation and anti-Apartheid movements [50] in South Africa and Namibia (then South West Africa) and targeting neighboring countries that offered them support. [51] This was partially justified as a new structure intended to turn back a "total onslaught" on the republic from abroad. [52] The post-colonial rise of newly independent black governments on the administration's doorstep created a perceived menace to the existing structure, and Pretoria's occupation of Namibia threatened to bring it into direct confrontation with the world community. [53] On the ground, militant guerrilla movements such as the African National Congress (ANC), South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) challenged South Africa with force of arms. [21] In 1984, at least 6,000 such insurgents were being trained and armed by Tanzania, Ethiopia, the Soviet Union, and Warsaw Pact member states. [3]

In general the struggle went badly for South Africa's opponents. Mozambique provided support and shelter to ANC operatives; in retaliation South African units launched massive counterstrikes which the local security forces were in no position to block. [3] [54] Military aircraft and special forces units deployed across Zimbabwe, [55] Botswana, [56] [57] Lesotho, [58] and Zambia [59] to attack suspected insurgent bases. [60] 30,000 South African military personnel were posted on the Namibian border by late 1985, frequently crossing the frontier to battle SWAPO groups operating from southern Angola. [21] [23] [61] SWAPO's MPLA allies, with the backing of the Cuban military, were often unable to protect them. [3] These raids demonstrated the SADF's efficiency in combating rural insurgency. Major guerrilla camps were always chief targets, whether on foreign or domestic soil. Consequently, establishing good intelligence and effective assault strategy were commonly reflected in tactical priorities. [3]

The SADF's success eventually compelled SWAPO to withdraw over 200 miles from the Namibian border, forcing their insurgents to travel great distances across arid bush in order to reach their targets. [3] Many could no longer carry heavy weapons on these treks, occasionally abandoning them as they marched south. Moreover, serious SWAPO losses were already having a negative effect on morale. [3] ANC operations fared little better. [62] Most high-profile terrorist attacks were foiled or offered negative publicity from a normally sympathetic international stage. [3] While it was clear that popular support was growing and guerrilla skills were being improved upon, affrays on South Africa itself did not seriously disrupt the economy or impact the country's superior military and industrial status. [34] [63]

By the fall of apartheid in 1991, the SADF was an uneven reflection of both the strengths and weaknesses of South Africa's white society at large. It employed many personnel with developed technical skills; thus, the military could more easily maintain and operate sophisticated hardware than black African forces drawn from underdeveloped regions. [3] In an unusual contrast with Southern Africa's other white armies, the SADF had a stern sense of bureaucratic hierarchy. [64] [65] Commanders deferred to civilian supervisors and normally could not aspire to political power. The SADF's technical performance had also improved greatly, owing largely to realistic and efficient training procedures. [34] The army in particular was skilled in both counterinsurgency warfare and conventional mechanised operations. [3] In 1984, 11,000 infantrymen were even trained to execute blitzkrieg tactics. [66] [67] [68] White soldiers were for the most part reasonably motivated; conscripts had a sense of defending their own country rather than some far-off foreign venture. Commissioned officers generally accepted in principle recruits of all colours, placed an emphasis on technical efficiency, and preferred to fight a foreign rather than domestic enemy despite extensive preparation for both. [3]


As a more representative democracy was introduced in 1994 1994 in South Africa some of the countries old enemies were thrown together under political pressure from the new regime to form the new SANDF "South African Defence Force" South African National Defence Force


The State President was the Commander-in-Chief of the SADF with:

Staff Divisions under the Chief of Defence Staff included:

Other Support Services commands included:

Heads of the South African Defence Force


Prior to amalgamation, the SADF had 585,000 personnel divided as follows:

Nuclear weapons

South Africa at one time possessed nuclear weapons, but its stockpile was dismantled during the political transition of the early 1990s.

See also

Related Research Articles

The history of Namibia has passed through several distinct stages from being colonised in the late nineteenth century to Namibia's independence on 21 March 1990.

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Operation Reindeer, which began on 4 May 1978, was South Africa's second major military operation in Angola, carried out under the Apartheid regime, the first being Operation Savannah.

The Battle of Cassinga also known as the Cassinga Raid or Kassinga Massacre was a controversial South African airborne attack on a South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) military camp at the town of Cassinga, Angola on 4 May 1978. Conducted as one of the three major actions of Operation Reindeer during the South African Border War, it was the South African Army's first major air assault operation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Armscor (South Africa)</span> Arms procurement agency and former manufacturer

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">South West Africa Territorial Force</span> Military unit

The South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) was an auxiliary arm of the South African Defence Force (SADF) and comprised the armed forces of South West Africa from 1977 to 1989. It emerged as a product of South Africa's political control of the territory which was granted to the former as a League of Nations mandate following World War I.

<i>Koevoet</i> Former South West African/Namibian police counterinsurgency organisation

Koevoet was the counterinsurgency branch of the South West African Police (SWAPOL). Its formations included white South African police officers, usually seconded from the South African Security Branch or Special Task Force, and black volunteers from Ovamboland. Koevoet was patterned after the Selous Scouts, a multiracial Rhodesian military unit which specialised in counter-insurgency operations. Its title was an allusion to the metaphor of "prying" insurgents from the civilian population.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">South African Border War</span> 1966–1990 border war between Zambia, Namibia, and Angola

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">United Nations Commissioner for Namibia</span> UN post

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">People's Liberation Army of Namibia</span> Namibian political movement

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bagaka Regiment</span> Military unit

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">63 Mechanised Battalion Group</span> Military unit

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">15 Reception Depot</span> Military unit

15 Reception Depot was an administrative unit of the Personnel Service Corps of the South African Army.


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