People-centred national security: Pipe dream or existential imperative?

The South African media has produced volumes of reporting, insight and opinion on the local national security scene over the last year. This is partially due to revelations at the Zondo commission into state capture, and partially as a result of the continuing turmoil in parts of the security and intelligence establishment. 

But little has been said about the higher-level thinking and strategic-level processes that are preconditions for the building of an effective and accountable national security apparatus. Our obsession with the details of who did what and when is not only a consequence of the failure to think strategically, but binds us into a perpetual process of thinking about micro-solutions to macro-strategic challenges.

To say that South Africa needs a process and outcomes to develop and codify a new national security strategy is not new. What I would like to explore here is the centrality of “the people” in such a strategy, not only in the process of crafting such a strategy, but in the content thereof.

‘The people’ as a weapon in asymmetric and hybrid warfare

The conduct of contemporary international affairs differs significantly from previous periods in as far as the clear delineation of war and peace no longer exists in an age where political action, political warfare and combat co-exist in both cyberspace and the traditional “real” domains of politics. 

A fundamental shift in this respect is the targeting of what adversarial states would identify as the centre of gravity of states: this has moved from the leadership and command and actual fighting forces, to a state where the citizenry has assumed the central gravitational role in the security and stability of a state. In democratic states such as ours, this centrality is even more pronounced, with the state unable to effectively function without the support and legitimacy of “the people”.

Hybrid warfare involves the application of information as a weapon to shape public opinion, transform the psychology of groups, and direct these to achieve specific political or economic objectives. The omnipresence of social media and the intrusive access of private companies over our communications is the largest facilitator of the ability to weaponise information against states.

Yaris Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, reminds us of the old Athenian saying that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. International relations is fundamentally an exercise of power, and those identified as weak or with the real potential to be weakened will be exploited, marginalised and ignored in the larger strategic domain. No amount of invitations to important summits or phone calls from global leaders changes this fundamental calculation.

South Africa has entered a period of extreme fragility and vulnerability due to a range of factors, from strategic drift, diminishing institutional capability and the growing trust deficit between the citizenry and the national leadership. This vulnerability applies both to our domestic stability and our international relations. 

Internal tensions, the collapse of the ANC and the failure of the political elite to reconstruct the social contract provides an excellent opportunity to attack the nation’s centre of gravity, “the people”, drive a further wedge between them and the government, and effect change that does not serve the interests of the nation.

‘The people’ as crafters of strategy

In our context, a national security strategy can only be effective if it can build its core elements around the resilience of the people. Consequently the citizens must be central to the process of crafting such a national security strategy. The idea that such a strategy can be developed entirely in boardrooms while gaining the legitimacy and potency that can only be achieved through the consent of the people, will not survive the slightest assault.

Some of the key documents in our national history are the result of extensive engagement with the people, including the Freedom Charter and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. The development of a new national security strategy, an initiative that seems to be progressing well under the minister of state security and to which reference is made in the ministry’s 2021 budget speech, must reach out to the public at large, as well as the academic and policy community in order to seek input while simultaneously using the process itself as an opportunity to build the resilience capability that comes with a strong bond between the government and people.

Cohesion as a strategic imperative

We South Africans suffer from two collective pathologies that, when combined, poses potent risks for the society of the nation and its ability to flourish. On the one hand there is a deeply-embedded exceptionalism that posits that we will never fall victim to the disastrous and sometimes endemic state failure that has accompanied much of post-colonial Africa. 

On the other hand, there is a certain naivety around our international relations that assumes we are universally loved and admired because of our fleeting “Madiba moment”, that is that we are immune to the effect of power and self-interest in international relations.

Societies that are divided as we increasingly are — along not only traditional racial lines but along class lines too — struggle to maintain their national cohesion. Such societies have a limited wherewithal to resist efforts by other states to shape the thinking and actions of its publics, and are minimally effective in advancing its interests abroad. National cohesion therefore becomes a central element of a national security strategy. 

If we agree with this assumption it follows that the national security apparatus must be oriented towards collecting the sort of intelligence that can assist the policymaker with a decisional advantage and options to build such cohesion, at all levels of our society. 

This could include both the identification of cohesion-eroding risks, obtaining intelligence on local or national opportunities and initiatives to build national cohesion, and intelligence on economic and developmental opportunities that can create the sociopolitical prerequisites for a cohesive society.

None of the above can be achieved without the twin elements of a national security strategy that is rooted in the people as its core, and an intelligence community that is not defanged but capacitated to meet this urgent and existential requirement.

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