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Zuma awards medals to Battle of Bangui soldiers in celebration of Armed Forces Day

President Zuma inspecting troops at Armed Forces Day.Commander-in-Chief and President Jacob Zuma on Friday awarded medals to soldiers involved in the deadly Battle of Bangui in March last year as part of Armed Forces Day celebrations in Bloemfontein.

The day before, the three units involved in the battle in the Central African Republic were awarded Battle Honours. The members of 1 Parachute Battalion, 7 Medical Battalion and 5 Reconnaissance Regiment wore their new colours during the parade on Friday. Zuma said the awarding of Battle Honours was the first time such honours had been bestowed on the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in twenty years of democracy.

Referring to Operation Vimbezela, South Africa’s mission since 2007 in the Central African Republic (CAR), Zuma said it had seen “relative success. However, owing to further internal destabilisation of the region, SANDF members were unfortunately caught in the crossfire in the current civil conflict that continues to this day. After being ambushed in March 2013, our members had to defend themselves…our soldiers accounted well for themselves.” In spite of being overwhelmed, they inflicted massive casualties, estimated at at least 700 rebel fighters, for the loss of 15 SANDF troops.

In recognition of their service, Zuma awarded a number of medals to those involved in the Battle of Bangui. 12 Silver Protea medals and three Bronze Leopard medals were handed to family members of 1 Parachute Battalion soldiers who died in the CAR. A single Silver Leopard, eight Bronze Leopard, two Golden Protea and one Silver Protea medals were also awarded to SANDF personnel while a civilian, S M Gates, was given a commendation for her activities.

Referring to the controversy of South Africa’s mission to the Central African Republic, originally to train, reintegrate and support the CAR’s military, Zuma said there were “mischievous attempts” by some South Africans to deny the honour in the deaths of those who fought Seleka rebels in Bangui. Zuma said the soldiers who fought in Bangui should return home in triumph, not shame. He said Armed Forces Day was there to stand behind South Africa’s military heroes and correct negativity surrounding them. “Through 2014 more parades will be held to honour the SANDF,” he said.

“It is our view that the true account of the battle of Bangui still needs to be documented, debated and be known to South Africans. We want to call on South Africans, to learn to celebrate and stand behind our heroes,” he said.

Zuma noted that Armed Forces Day “allows for reflection on the remarkable transformation to build a defence force we are all so proud of,” and “celebrate twenty years of freedom and twenty years of existence of the South African National Defence Force.” He said the old South African Defence Force (SADF) was known for aggression, terrorising the townships and slowing the march to freedom. Now the SANDF protects the population, conducts peacekeeping operations on the continent, builds infrastructure in rural areas and trains the youth.

“The transformation of the SANDF has been a truly inspiring journey,” Zuma said. For twenty years the SANDF has been the midwife to peace and freedom on the continent, with South Africa playing a leading role in post conflict reconstruction and support. “Over the last thirteen years South Africa has deployed forces to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations,” notably in the DRC where the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) helped bring about the surrender of M23 rebels, the president said.

Zuma lauded the Navy’s role in protecting the country from sea invasion and allowing South Africa to continue to enjoy affordable fish; the SAAF’s role in sea and mountain rescues and the SANDF’s role in, fighting crime, disaster relief and humanitarian missions. “Our people are trusted to protect the borders of our land. Soldiers stay awake at night to ensure the people can sleep in peace,” he told soldiers and guests at AFB Bloemspruit in Bloemfontein.

On the question of military funding, Zuma only went as far as saying that the issue of budgets needs to be looked at. “Much consideration has gone to this,” he said, adding that the formal stages of cabinet approval should be finalised within the end of the current term of office.

Looking back over the past year, Zuma noted that the Defence Works Formation was established to improve the facilities at bases and that the SANDF had announced the establishment of the Education Trust for dependents of dead or injured personnel as well as disabled personnel. “The education fund will help dependents of those who have fallen….I will make a small contribution…a small token of R500 000 to the fund,” Zuma announced.

Friday’s Armed Forces Day celebrations included several flypasts, including by the Silver Falcons. Other aircraft that took part included six Gripens and a Hawk, two C-130s, a C-47TP, Caravans and Air Force helicopters (Rooivalk, Oryx and A109). After hundreds of troops marched up and down and saluted the Commander-in-Chief, around 100 vehicles in a mechanised column drove past assembled guests and then through Bloemfontein. The convoy included active vehicles, from trucks to main battle tanks, as well as retired vehicles from the SA Armour Museum.

The first Armed Forces Day was held in Thaba Tshwane on December 16, 2010, disappearing from the national calendar for the next two years before coming back on February 21 last year. This year it was hosted by the Army and will be the South African Air Force’s responsibility next year.

February 21 is a date with enduring significance to the South African military fraternity as it marks the single biggest loss of life in the country’s naval history. The sinking of the SS Mendi with the loss of 616 lives in the English Channel en route to France in 1917 is regarded as one of South Africa’s worst military disasters.

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