2020 – COVID-19’s year


Looking back as the sun goes down on 2020, the most obvious memory of the year will be the coronavirus and what it did to South Africa.

As is usual with the South African government’s crisis management attempts, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was among the first in Cabinet’s justice, peace and security cluster to be roped in to respond. This saw President Cyril Ramaphosa, also the Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF, announce the “employment” of over 80 000 uniformed and civilian personnel in the four services to assist with medical and security aspects of the national state of disaster.

Soldiers patrolled streets and were proactive in enforcing social distancing. They also supported police actions as is the norm for crime prevention operations where Minister Bheki Cele’s police service calls for – and receives – assistance from a military which dreams of having the budget Cele and National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sithole are allocated by National Treasury.

Unfortunately soldiers are not trained – nor should they be expected to be – police and over the Easter weekend Alexandra resident Collins Khosa died, apparently at the hands of soldiers.

Ensuing events, including a SANDF board of inquiry and the involvement of the Military Ombud as well as attempts by Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to minimise military involvement, are all still up in the air. This because the Khosa death is under investigation by police as a murder case.

Minister Mapisa-Nqakula was again in the spotlight later in the year when she apparently gave a lift to some fellow ANC members wanting to visit Zimbabwe. She was docked three months’ salary for this by Ramaphosa.

The national state of disaster affected more than just local military activity and it put a stop to at least one exercise involving foreign navies and saw internal exercises and planned operational deployments curtailed.

What did continue unabated was the border protection tasking under the codename Operation Corona. Fifteen companies of mostly infantry soldiers, both full- and part-time, patrolled largely inhospitable land borders with Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in a never-ending cycle seeking out illegal immigrants (undocumented persons in government-speak) and smugglers among others. The temporary bans on alcohol and cigarettes seemed to fuel smuggling, keeping soldiers buys and 2020 highlighted the need for effective border security, to stop the virus as well as nefarious activity.

The defence industry was also hit by the pandemic, with most businesses having to shut down at the beginning of the lockdown in March. Many have since resumed activity, but the economic fallout from the pandemic around the world makes it an even harder environment to do business in. For Denel, already struggling to turn itself around, the pandemic could not have come at a worse time.

Hazarding a brief look into 2021, indications are COVID-19 will remain a major factor. Government seems to have settled into a pattern of extending the national state of disaster on a month-to-month basis. Whether this will continue and at what level of lockdown with a new strain of the virus making its appearance, only time and decisions made by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) will tell.

In possible jeopardy are Armed Forces Day (21 February) and concomitant events set for the Mpumalanga provincial capital, Mbombela, and the Aerospace Defence and Trade Show on the calendar for 24 to 26 March at Lanseria International Airport. 2020 has shown that the world can be a tricky and unpredictable place and forecasting what will happen in 2021 is near impossible.

After a momentous year, defenceWeb is taking a festive season break and is on R&R until 4 January. We take this opportunity to wish advertisers, supporters, readers and friends well for whatever lies ahead.