A Brief Introduction to the Defence Reserves in South Africa

Cape Town Military Tattoo

In the middle of the year, in response to a couple of enthusiastic blog posts I had written about the spectacular Cape Town Military Tattoo of 2008 and 2009, I was approached by Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Johan Conradie, the Chairman of the Tattoo Committee, which is in charge of organising the now annual Cape Town Military Tattoo, to write some articles for them.

The next Tattoo, incidentally, is scheduled to take place from 3 to 6 November 2010 at the magnificent and historic Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town, which is simply the perfect setting for such a spectacular event. So, mark your calendars!

Naturally, I was thrilled, excited and more than a little nervous and apprehensive too. Not having been exposed to a military environment of any kind before, I had no idea what might be expected of me, nor whether I could in fact generate articles on particular topics ‘on demand’ – I have not had to do that since my university days!

However, my curiosity was piqued, to say the very least, and I decided to leap right in. And what an incredible experience it has been so far!

Social function at the Castle of Good Hope

Some past articles

I have since written a couple of articles for Lt Col Conradie and his office, and not just about the preparations for the 2010 Tattoo. Two of them have already been published on my blog:

They have also appeared on and been submitted to various websites, such as here:

And they have been submitted to the Reserve Force Volunteer (you can find PDF copies of past issues here) and SA Soldier (again, click here for PDF copies of past issues) magazines, which is particularly thrilling! I shall let you know when they are published.

I am going to put the other articles I have written on my blog too, so that you will finally know what I have been up to these past months, and just in case you have been wondering, why I have not posted so regularly in recent weeks.

Me, standing in front of a GV5 Howitzer gun at Fort iKapa

The Defence Reserves

But now for the main topic of this blog:

As it turns out, Lt Col Johan Conradie is also the Chief of Staff of the Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape (DRPOWC), who have their office at the Castle. Honestly, I had not heard of the Defence Reserves before, and did not know what role they played in the country. In case you too are a little mystified, read on.

I have since learned that the Defence Reserves are South African citizens who voluntarily join the South African National Defence Force on a part-time basis. This is in accordance with the Government’s imperative to have a small Regular Force and a large Reserve Force, which can be used to supplement the Regular Force whenever the need arises, such as when there are peace support operations in other African countries, for instance, or when there are national ‘emergencies’, as has been the case with the recent strikes.

Individuals can join the Reserves in three ways.

  1. The first is through the Military Skills Development System (MSDS), which requires individuals to complete a two-year voluntary service. Thereafter, some of them may be offered a five-year contract with the Regular Force and, after that, they can continue serving the country by being part of the Reserve Force. They may be part of the Reserves until the age of 65 years (see here).
  2. The second way of joining the Reserves is through direct recruitment. This applies specifically to people with professional skills, such as doctors, pharmacists, pilots, etc. (see here)
  3. The third route is for individuals who have previously received military training (see here).

Interested individuals can thus join the SA Army, SA Air Force, SA Navy or SA Military Health Services. They are allocated to a unit, are paid for the hours they work there, get to wear a uniform, and receive military training, which usually occurs in the evenings or over weekends. Many of the skills they learn in this environment can also be applied to their jobs in the private sector.

My only experience of the military was of my male cousins, friends and class mates being called up in the 1980s to go and fight at the border between northern South West Africa (now Namibia, but at the time South West Africa fell under the protection of South Africa for historical reasons) and Angola.

At the time, all white males in the country were called up for national service for two years; after completing those two years, they would be allocated to a Citizen Force or Reserve Force unit or to the Commandos (which have since been discontinued). For a further eight years, they were still compelled to do national service for a minimum of 12 days a year. This meant that there was a constant flow of trained men and qualified leader groups into the various units, which were also far larger than they are now. It also meant, equally importantly, that employers were aware of the fact that their employees would be called up at intervals to attend training camps or operational duty.

In 1994, however, this conscription system or feeder system fell away. The individuals who joined the Defence Force since then did so voluntarily. This also meant, however, that there were not as many new recruits signing up for military service, which has significantly reduced the growth capabilities of the military. There is also no longer an understanding among business of the importance of the Defence Force, nor of the role of the Defence Reserves.

The Military Skills Development System was established in 2003 (see here) to make up for the loss in capacity in the different branches of the military, and to train people for the Defence Reserves. However, because there are such small numbers of trainees, these tend to be absorbed into the Regular Force instead.

From my rather limited perspective and insight into these matters, and based on the little that I have seen so far, I wonder whether it might not be better to allow the Reserve units to recruit and train their own members? Alternatively, when individuals have been recruited by a specific Reserve unit, would it not be better if they completed their MSDS training as a recognised member of such a unit, rather than becoming part of the general military intake? Perhaps such an approach would reduce the problems currently faced by many Reserve units with regard to growth capabilities and ensuring that their units are at full strength.

Essentially, then, the role of the DRPOWC is to create awareness among the youth and corporate business about the role of the Defence Reserves. The Defence Reserve system does not only contribute to the military readiness of the state, but also to civil defence, because its members are trained to help in any emergencies. Furthermore, the young men and women who are chosen to go through the MSDS acquire a whole range of useful skills that can also be applied in civilian life.

Well, this was just a very short, admittedly limited and probably quite subjective introduction to the South African Defence Reserves, but perhaps you too have learned something new here?

I was intrigued by the fact that Reservists are often described as ‘twice the citizen’. It sounds quite inspiring. To quote from our current Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Lindiwe Sisulu MP:

“Voluntary service in the Reserve is unique and indeed honourable and I cannot describe it better than our former President Dr Nelson Mandela did when he said of the Reserve soldiers: ‘People who offer themselves so selflessly are indeed twice the citizen’.” (2010 Message from the Minister)

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