No easy ride for new Makhado GOC


Three days after officially assuming command of SA Air Force (SAAF) base Makhado, Brigadier General Lance ‘Lancelot’ Mathebula had to take notice of a Department of Defence (DoD) media statement grounding the air force’s lone fighter squadron and its Swedish designed and manufactured Gripens.

The grounding appears, without being said in as many words, due to complicated and protracted contract negotiations as regards maintenance and support of the single-engined Saab JAS 39 Gripens.

The 26 fighters were acquired as part of the then new-in-power ANC government’s Strategic Defence Procurement Package (SDPP) to re-equip the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). In addition to the 26 Gripens in single and two-seater configurations, the SAAF received 24 Hawk Mk 120 lead-in fighter trainers, 30 Agusta A109 light utility helicopter and four Super Lynx 300 maritime helicopters. The SA Navy (SAN) was the other recipient of government defence prime mission equipment largesse. Four Valour Class frigates and three Type 209 diesel electric submarines, operating as the Heroine Class, returned a blue water capability to the maritime service.

The new boss of what is widely known as the SAAF’s “fighter town” will have to be content with the Hawks of 85 Combat Flying School (CFS) keeping the jet part of the base front of mind until hopefully amicable settlement of legal and financial issues around Gripen. SAAF Gripens are on the inventory of 2 Squadron, known far and wide as the “Flying Cheetahs” and in the parlance of recently retired SAAF aircrew as “2, the one still operational” in reference to 1 Squadron standing down in 1997 when the Mirage F1AZ was retired.

The media invitation for last week’s change of command parade at Air Force Base (AFB) Makhado notes the new base boss will “be equal to the task at hand in spite of the arduous journey he will traverse as GOC (General Officer Commanding) AFB Makhado”.

“Among challenges Mathebula will face include, but are not limited to, a budget shortfall which continues to bedevil the operational mandate of the SANDF as previously rehashed by the top echelons of the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans,” the invitation notes.

The one-star general is no stranger to military jets, qualifying as a Hawk Mk 120 flight leader in 2009 and is the first black pilot to command the Limpopo base.

Mathebula has been in command of the base since April but only officially assumed command last week.

“I have been in command for the last nine months – it has been a long hard couple of months but it is very refreshing that if you have the stuff like the stuff we have at Air Force Base Makhado and the support is there to make sure that we can keep the capability,” the SABC reports Mathebula as saying.

“Firstly, my main focus on as a commander is to make sure that safe flying and safeguarding operations at Air Force Base Makhado, as per the Force Preparation and Force Employment requirement. Secondly, I aim to ensure that the social welfare of the members on the Base is enhanced. I also aim to prioritise the relationship of the Base with its stakeholders in the community of Vhembe District and Limpopo Province and by extension the country”, said Mathebula.

Mathebula’s predecessor was Brigadier General Andre Barends. Makhado has been home in the command sense of the word to a number of respected senior SAAF officers, including the late Des Barker.

Apart from its current lone flying unit – 85 CFS – Makhado is also home to 102 Squadron (a Reserve Force unit), 3 Air Servicing Unit (ASU) and 515 Squadron (protection services).

Biography for Lance Mathebula:

Mathebula was born in Hammanskraal on 26 January 1978. In 1999, he applied to join the South African Air Force as a pilot and was accepted. On 12 January 2000 he began Basic Military Training. On 5 January 2002 he began pilot training at the Central Flying School at Air Force Base Langebaanweg and received his wings (qualified) on 12 November 2002.

On 15 March 2004, he completed the Impala Mk I and Mk II Conversion course. On 1 December 2004, he completed the Impala Operational Training Course at 85 Combat Flying School, then based at Air Force Base Hoedspruit qualifying as a wingman; completed the Hawk Mk 120 Conversion Course on 31 December 2006, after the school was officially relocated to Air Force Base Makhado and opened by then Minister of Defence, Mosiuoa Lekota. He completed the Gripen Operational Conversion Course on 1 May 2010; completed the Astra (PC-7 Mk II) Instructors Conversion Course on 11 September 2013; completed the Hawk Conversion and Instructors Conversion Course on 5 November 2014 and the Pilot Attack Instructors rating on 1 September 2016.

On 8 December 2016, Mathebula completed the Junior Command and Staff Course and Senior Air Warfare Programme at the South African Air Force College and the Joint Senior Command and Staff Programme at the South African National War College on 23 November 2017.

On 12 January 2018, he was promoted to Air Wing Coordinator, Air Force Base Makhado and on 11 March 2021 promoted to the rank Brigadier General as the Officer Commanding Air Force Base Makhado.

Highlights of his career include:

Becoming the first black South African airman to fly the new Hawk Lead-In Fighter Trainer during a 45-minute introductory flight from AFB Waterkloof, Pretoria, on 18 September 2002.
Participating in Exercise Red Flag as the South African Observer, in the United States of America in 2009.
Participating in Exercise Lion Effort as the Mission Commander for the “Aggressor Team” in Sweden April 2012.
Participating in the South Africa-United Kingdom Hawk Mk 120 Pilot Exchange Programme from February 2015 to March 2016.
Qualifying as a Hawk 2v1 Display Pilot in 2016.
The appointment as the Koba Tlala Limpopo Task Team Chairperson in March 2021.

Mathebula holds a post graduate diploma in Management in the Field of Security from Witwatersrand University and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Management in the field of Security, Research in Cyber Warfare.