The South African National Defence Force has started to retrench up to 16,000 personnel.
This is in response to an instruction by the National Treasury to cut almost R3-billion from its salary bill over the next three years.
More than half the defence budget is spent on salaries. In the current financial year about R27-billion, in a budget of R47-billion, was allocated to pay the troops.
The defence force said soldiers on peacekeeping missions and at embassies outside South Africa would also be affected.
The job cuts include administrative staff and fighting troops.
The retrenchments are likely to be carried out in other government departments too.
Civil service cuts were expected after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s announcement in February that the Treasury would trim the public sector wage bill by at least R25-billion over three years.
Treasury spokeswoman Yolisa Tyantsi said the recommendation to reduce the wage bill had been sent to all government departments.
The defence force said the cuts would affect its “efficient and effective management”.
Spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said: “If our budget is reduced further, as has been the case over the years, it will … have a negative impact on the human resource component .”
Kobus Marais, the DA’s spokesman on defence, said South Africa could not afford the current defence force.
“We do need a strong defence force, but right now there are too many chiefs, not enough Indians.
“The defence force is bloated with more senior and ageing people than the young and active personnel that are really needed.”
Some staff at Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria said they had received letters terminating their contracts, but Dlamini said he was not aware of any letters. He was unable to check with the defence force’s human resources department.
Dlamini said that to cut R3-billion from its wage bill would mean the loss of 16 000 jobs. He said other ways of cutting the wage bill would be investigated.
Defence personnel who spoke to reporters said they did not know what criteria were being used to decide on retrenchments.
“There was no consultation,” said one.
She said she had been an office administrator in the defence force for more than 10 years and had now received her notice.
A major who has been with the defence force for 21 years had also received a letter ending his contract.
He said that about 60 people from Air Force Base Waterkloof had received letters informing them about the termination of their services.
He had been told that his service in the defence force would be terminated in March even though he had been contracted until December 2017.
A corporal who has served in the defence force for 10 years said he received a letter in October informing him that his contract would not be renewed in March.
“I am a soldier and will serve and defend my country, but now I don’t know what I am going to do as I have been laid off,” he said.
A sergeant with 21 years’ experience said he was devastated after receiving a letter informing him his contract would be terminated in March, even though it was due to expireonly in December next year.
“I dedicated my life to protect the sovereignty of this country and its citizens and now I am being thrown out in the cold without any explanation,” he said.
Pikkie Greeff, secretary of the South African National Defence Union, said any recommendations from Treasury were subject to the law.
“We will go to court to stop the retrenchment of our members. If the defence force think they will go ahead with this, they have a big fight coming,” he said.
It is believed those affected were contract workers. The longest defence force contract was for a pilot, which went up to 15 years and could be renewed.