One would think the SA Air Force (SAAF) knows better but the airborne arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is either too thick-skinned or doesn’t realise the importance of Mr and Mrs South Africa.
Last week the SAAF marked its 96th anniversary with the by now traditional Air Force Day parade and flypast at AFB Waterkloof, a venue selected by Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Zakes Msimang. The parade and flypast is held on the Friday closest to February 1 with presentation of the SAAF Prestige Awards happening the evening before.
One of 2 Squadron’s Gripens was assigned flypast duty and duly arrived at the Centurion base ahead of schedule to practise for the event. That was when the shunning of the general public by the air force informative-wise became obvious.
During the course of the practice the aircraft (tail number 3923) spent time in a holding pattern over the Fourways/Lanseria area as well as to the south-east of Johannesburg. This, while well received from the aviation fraternity, did not enjoy the same respect from residents.
Comments including “Gripen fighter jet startles the community”, “Panic gripped residents of Jukskei Park, Johannesburg North, Bloubosrand and North Riding as a green aircraft circulated”, “It was flying so low she thought it might crash into one of the houses” and “A fighter jet flying over Fourways? Freaking scary!” were posted on social media and repeated on local radio stations.
Instead of reacting positively – which it should have done even before the practice flight – the SAAF has kept quiet as it does almost always when there is a need to communicate.
The Gripen flight over South Africa’s economic hub could have been turned into a public relations bonus showing the SAAF’s – and the SANDF’s -commitment to keeping South Africa safe and secure. Instead people will remember the day as one where they had to pacify terrified children who have never heard a military jet and run (unnecessarily) to social and other media to relate their totally unfounded fears.
The SAAF has come a long, long way from when now retired brigadier general Derrick Page coined the phrase “Pride of the Nation” to describe it ahead of the SAAF 75th anniversary. That was 20 years ago and now the SAAF seems to be the recipient – mostly – of bad publicity for which it only has itself to blame.
Msimang has often reiterated the importance of the media as a force multiplier and as a means of informing the public about the positive roles of the SAAF. During his speech on Friday, Msimang reminded the media that the Air Force “remains committed to fostering a sound relationship with you”. It is time to make good on those promises and for the Air Force to be more proactive in its approach to engaging with the media and the public.