Months of hard work, training and tragedy reached a head on Wednesday 22 November when the South African Army hosted its Distinguished Visitors’ Day demonstration for Exercise Vuk’uhlome 2023, as 14 000 troops showcased the defence force’s capabilities at Lohatlha.
The Distinguished Visitors’ Day witnessed high-level attendance from African and international militaries, including the Chief of Russia’s Land Forces. Other army heads hailed from Angola, Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, and Ghana, amongst others. Also in attendance were military veterans, attaches, members of the defence industry, the Chief of the SA Navy, the Chief of the SA Air Force, and South African Military Health Service Surgeon General.
Vuk’uhlome is the SA Army’s flagship exercise, and its largest, and the combat finale on Wednesday saw Army Chief, Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha, declaring forces combat ready at the Northern Cape Combat Training Centre.
Events kicked off mid-morning with a crowd control demonstration led by the Military Police. This was followed by a hostage rescue demonstration, bomb drops by the Gripen fighter, supported by a couple of Hawk Mk 120 lead-in fighter-trainers. A C212 dropped paratroopers before a BK 117, supported by an A109, rescued a ‘downed pilot’. Special Forces entered the fray with their Hornet vehicles and light weapons as well as ZSU-23-fitted Land Cruisers before the big guns came out: Ratels, Rooikats and Olifants were among the armoured vehicles, supported by infantry, to attack the ‘enemy’ in force. They were supported by 127 mm Bateleur multiple rocket launchers, G6 howitzers, Air Defence Artillery guns, and other weapons.
A substantial number of the vehicles that took part in Vuk’uhlome were refurbished under the Cuban-led Operation Thusano. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya, said this was an example of solutions to rejuvenate the SANDF coming not only from the fiscus but through “innovation”.
As the main functionary at Exercise Vuk’uhlome 2023, Maphwanya, said this edition of the brigade-level exercise was even better than last year’s edition and was a “landmark event” that brought together all elements of the SANDF except for the Navy.
He said the focus on crowd control was important given the growing requirement for such tasks with the United Nations, and vital in terms of what the SANDF needs to do to support the South African Police Service – 3 300 soldiers have been deployed to fight crime, including illegal mining. He said the ‘zama zamas’ are behaving like rats in tunnels, and terrorizing the women and children in the communities they operate in.
Maphwanya, in his speech to the distinguished visitors, said the SANDF continues to exercise against the backdrop of a diminishing defence budget and has to pull a rabbit out of the hat to continue meeting its mandate, but “judging by this successful exercise, I am confident we can meet the tasks facing us.”
These include rendering assistance after floods and natural disasters – expected to become more commonplace amid global warming – illegal mining, border security, and responding to civil unrest. The deployment of 15 000 personnel to curb the July 2021 unrest highlighted the need to train the SANDF in crowd control, he said, as the defence force previously didn’t realise it needed to meet this responsibility so greatly.
“As the SANDF we do what we do to see peace in our region and the continent,” the Chief of the SANDF said, noting peacekeeping deployments to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.
Internationally, he made mention of the instability in the world, notably in Gaza and Ukraine. He urged the United Nations to live up to its mandate and resolve conflicts without bias. “Let’s find peaceful resolutions in Ukraine and Gaza. Let peace prevail,” he irged, adding that Africa must try and heed the call of the African Union to silence the guns on the continent.
While the Distinguished Visitors Day exercise generally went off successfully on Wednesday, it was marred by the crash-landing of an Air Force C212 transport aircraft, which was damaged on landing at Lohatlha after dropping paratroopers for the exercise. No serious injuries were reported, but further details remain scarce.
Exercise Vuk’uhlome 2023 has been dogged by tragedy, starting with the death of four soldiers on 20 September who were killed in a Samil 50 truck accident while en route to Lohatlha. Then on 6 October, six soldiers died in a runaway fire at the Combat Training Centre, fanned by winds gusting up to 70 km/h.
Maphwanya said that in spite of the very unfortunate incidents in the preparation phase of the exercise, the SANDF decided not to cancel Vuk’uhlome as it did not want to lose sight of what it hoped to achieve.
“This exercise could not have been a success without the sleepless nights of our members, operating on a shoestring budget. Your effort is commended and will ensure the SANDF remains a committed and combat ready force to fulfil its mandate,” Maphwanya told those assembled at the Combat Training Centre on Wednesday.
Exercises Vuk’uhlome 2022 and 2023 are the largest SA Army divisional exercises executed since 1999 and showcase the capabilities of the newly formed Motorised, Mechanised, Airborne, Light, and Reserve Modern Brigades. The new brigade formations are designed and set up to respond to modern threats such as asymmetric warfare and were established in response to the current security situation. The modern brigade concept is cognisant of asymmetric and terrorism threats to South Africa.