SANDF Chief denies allegations of a secret rogue unit but questions remain

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Following media allegations of a secret SANDF “death squad” allegedly involved in kidnapping, torture and murder, the Chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, emphatically denied that such a unit exists.

At a media briefing on Thursday 7 December, Maphwanya termed the allegations published over several weeks in the Daily Maverick by civil society organisation Open Secrets as “fabrications.” He said the SANDF viewed the allegations in the most serious light as they have a potential to damage the image and reputation of the defence force.

“All matters raised in these reports are of a serious nature and one would have expected that those who have such information together with their sources have an obligation to report such crime to law enforcement authorities,” he said.

In his prepared statement, Maphwanya referred to some incidents that featured in the Open Secrets exposé. These include the recovery of assault rifles and pistols stolen from the SA Army Engineer Formation in December 2019 and the abduction of an individual at the Mall of Africa. Both these incidents are before the court and “the SANDF cannot comment” on the matters.

According to Open Secrets, some Special Forces (SF) operators were seen on surveillance footage at the Mall of Africa where alleged Islamic State financier Abdella Abadiga and his bodyguard were kidnapped. Three weeks earlier, in December 2022, the same luxury car seemingly belonging to the SANDF Special Forces was present when the sanctioned Russian ship Lady R off-loaded cargo in Simon’s Town.

Open Secrets also alleged that a civilian was tortured to death during the interrogation into the stolen assault rifles.

The SANDF did establish a Board of Inquiry headed by Brigadier General John Moorhouse to investigate complaints of alleged criminal activity, corruption, and abuse of office in the defence force. The final report was handed to the chief of the SANDF in September 2023.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kobus Marais insists the findings should be tabled in Parliament and made public.

As part of the top-ranking panel at the media briefing, Lieutenant General Michael Ramatswana, SANDF Chief of Corporate Staff, said the Moorhouse Board of Inquiry is an internal tool, part of an on-going process. “The Board of Inquiry was convened without any pressure, and it will be concluded without pressure from anybody.”

Lieutenant General Thalita Mxakato, SANDF Chief of Defence Intelligence, added the Board of Inquiry dealt with a myriad of issues, not only those reported on in the media, and its recommendations are being considered by the Chief of the SANDF “who is applying his mind.”

Marais is of the view that releasing the report is in the public interest, “because some of the victims of torture at the hands of rogue SANDF unit were civilians, whose cases have not been properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to book.”

Marais said the alleged rogue unit, comprising the Special Forces Brigade, the Military Police, Defence Intelligence and Defence Legal Services were “operating with impunity and have raised concerns of a large-scale criminal conspiracy within the SANDF.”

Maphwanya denied such criminality in the SANDF, saying the Special Forces operate within the law. “We can state clearly without any ambiguity that the defence force operates in a constitutional and democratic state,” he affirmed.

“Like any other government department, the defence force can be scrutinised for anything that might seem to be going against the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and that must be done within the framework of openness and transparency.”

He regarded the media as part of societal structures, which can act as a “force multiplier” to keep South Africa’s people well informed by reporting objectively.

The message that the media should convey is one of hope, that the SANDF is the country’s “last line of defence.” He said the SANDF always acts in the best interest of the people and is a guarantor for all other activities in the country. “Our role is to protect South Africa; we would not be derailed by anything, despite cuts and budgetary constraints.”

In this regard, he referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Commander in Chief of the SANDF, who is on record as saying the “de-budgeting of the defence force must come to an end.”

“The allegations of torture are indeed worrying, and this is not good for public confidence in the defence force,” Maphwanya stated. “For the record, there are no military squads in the defence force that exist to carry out acts of torture and murder for whatever reasons.”