SAAF Museum aims to provide history of Non-Statutory Forces air wings

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The SAAF Museum at Air Force Base Zwartkop outside Pretoria has embarked on a project to provide a complete account of the activities of the aviation components of the Non-Statutory Forces (NSF).

The project, approved by Chief of the Air Force General Fabian “Zakes” Msimang, will likely include oral history material, written and photographic records as well as actual aircraft. The first of which, a Cessna 150F, ZS-NWP, was scheduled to land at AFB Zwartkop and be handed over to the museum in a ceremony on Saturday. However, the arrival of the aircraft was prevented by electrical problems. The fly-in and handover has been postponed to the SAAF Museum’s annual air show on May 9.

The Cessna 150 aircraft obtained by the SAAF Museum is of the type used by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Training Centre, formed under the auspices of the UN. The Cessna 150 was used as an initial flying trainer. The aircraft obtained by the Museum is of the type flown by Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) members in exile, but is not one of the actual aircraft used to train the volunteers. Members of these Non-Statutory Forces were trained at Zaria in Nigeria and are referred to as “The Class of ‘77”.

In 1976 a decision was taken by the APLA High Coomand, Central Committee and the Military Comission to train aviatiors. A group of 22 were identified and sent to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Training Centre at Zaria. Fourteen pilots and eight aircraft engineers were trained. One of those was Deputy Chief of the SAAF, Major General Gerald Malinga.

Officer Commanding the SAAF Museum, Colonel Mike O’Connor said the Museum wants to reunite the class of 77 and give them an opportunity to fly in the aircraft again.

SAAF Major General Nhlanhla “Lucky” Ngema has been brought out of retirement and tasked to incorporate the “irregular” forces’ history into the museum. While some exhibits have already showcased the history of MK and APLA’s Air Wings, much remains to be done, especially when it comes to a full history of these aviators.

General Ngema told defenceWeb in an interview that he sometimes called his work “Project Counter-Balance”. He stressed the difficulties of setting down the history of the liberation movement’s air wings and contrasted this with those of the former South African Defence Force (SADF) which was a regular force, and had full documentation of members, ranks, units, movements and material. It was especially easy to write the history of a particular aircraft which had belonged to, for example, the SAAF.

The NSFs faced a very different situation. “We didn’t really have a bona fide air force. A lot of aviators were trained with the idea of forming an air force, but many countries came to the table to train pilots, to train engineers, even the anti-aircraft (component),” Ngema said.

The General said APLA’s main “springboard” was Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but the training was by no means all carried out there. Some members were trained in Nigeria, others in Canada or the UK. (In the case of Western nations, the training was more education-related while in the Communist and Non-Aligned countries, it was more military.)
“Most of that was not documented,” Ngema said, adding it was time to “merge” the histories of both the former “TBVC” (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, Ciskei) defence forces and the SADF on the one hand, and that of the liberation movements’ armed wings on the other, so that “full history from both sides” to form, as he put it, “one story”.

General Ngema also pointed to problems caused in exile when disagreements arose and groups split, making documentation even more difficult. The SAAF Museum’s Historical Research Officer, Colonel Graham du Toit said the present Cessna 150 was a civilian aircraft built in the USA, then sold to Zambia, Zimbabwe and eventually South Africa. He also revealed he would be writing a book in due course on the NSF air wings.

Another former member of the “Class of 77” is Lieutenant Colonel Mthimkulu Moses Seroto of the SAAF Reserves. Unlike most pilots, who dream of flying as children, Seroto said he did the flying training course because he was ordered to, but he developed a passion for flying later. He also said APLA investigated various options for flight training. “It was not just about training guys to be trained as pilots of a free country. It was also training guys who can come and hijack the aeroplanes!”

He said some APLA members received naval training in Egypt, and also mentioned a small APLA group that fought with Pol Pot as part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or as he put it, Kampuchea. He explained that after the fall of the Pol Pot regime, the group was evacuated to Thailand by the International Red Cross and returned to Dar es Salaam, where they were experts in camouflage.

Of his own journey, he said, “I went to Nigeria, from Nigeria I came back to Dar es Salaam; I went to a military camp; a couple of years in the military camp, then I was taken back to school, to acquire a diploma in business management.”

Seroto’s account reflects General Ngema’s description of the training based at Dar es Salaam. The young APLA (or in other cases, MK) members received the benefits of both Western and Eastern training. After returning to South Africa following the end of Apartheid, Seroto joined the SAAF in 1996.

During the interview, Lt Col Seroto expressed amazement that his class was to have its own exhibit and another former “Class of 77” member, P.K Gaelisewe, said: “We are humbled that they took so much trouble” to remember the efforts of the APLA NSF members in exile.