Africom chief visits SA to strengthen defence ties


As part of a regional visit, the US military’s Africa Command chief, General Stephen Townsend, has met with senior members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in order to strengthen bilateral defence relations.

“South Africa is a partner of choice for Africom. It is the regional anchor in sub-Saharan Africa,” he told defenceWeb. “We are here to improve relations with South Africa.”

After visiting Mozambique between 16 and 18 November, Townsend spent three days in South Africa, where he met with the top leadership of the SANDF. He said the meetings went well, with “a great exchange of ideas,” and exploration of ways to improve military-to-military relations.

Townsend admitted that defence relations between the two countries have “seen their ups and downs” but “now it’s a good time to elevate those relations.” He said the South African side was receptive to that and Townsend hoped his visit was just the first of many engagements.

When asked what strengthened US-SA military relations might look like, Townsend envisions everything from military students attending schools and courses to the supply of equipment and training as well as joint exercises. Medical training and humanitarian assistance is a key focus, especially in light of COVID-19 – the United States has provided medical assistance and equipment to numerous African countries, including South Africa, in response to the pandemic.

Townsend was confident that military exercises will take place in the future, such as Shared Accord – the 2017 edition of this exercise was held in South Africa. Since then, engagements have included ship visits, with the most recent being the USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams visiting Cape Town between September and October this year.

Regarding the supply of equipment and spares, Townsend said airlift is another area that he would like to see renewed, with discussions underway with the SANDF. The United States previously provided surplus C-130 Hercules aircraft, spares and training to the South African Air Force.

When it comes to cementing military-to-military cooperation, Townsend reiterated that the United States will take its cues from South Africa to determine what this will look like.

His visit to southern Africa would have taken place earlier but was delayed by roughly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It coincides with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarking on a wide-ranging Africa tour.

“Partnerships are important to the United States. President Joe Biden wants to strengthen relationships around the globe. That’s why we’re here,” Townsend told defenceWeb during his stop in Pretoria.

Whilst in Mozambique last week, Townsend and US Ambassador to Mozambique Dennis W Hearne met with Mozambican Minister of Defence Cristóvão Chume and Chief of General Staff Admiral Joaquim Mangrasse. The officials discussed the importance of the US-Mozambique security partnership and progress in stabilizing the situation in northern Mozambique, according to the US Embassy in Maputo.

“The United States and Mozambique are building a strong security partnership,” said Hearne. “We share a mutual goal of establishing and maintaining peace and stability in Mozambique.”

“I came here to discuss with Mozambique’s security leaders our shared challenges,” said Townsend. “We have a good bilateral relationship and US Africa Command is looking for ways we can strengthen that to address those mutual concerns.”

Townsend’s visit to Mozambique came a month after Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams visited Maputo. Earlier in the year, the US Department of Defence conducted two Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) programmes between US Special Operations Forces and Mozambican Commandos and Fuzileiros. Other cooperation saw Mozambique participate in the Cutlass Express exercise.

When asked about the biggest challenge facing Africa, Townsend told defenceWeb the main threat Africom sees is Al Shabaab in East Africa, but the terror threat is growing in southern Africa and the United States is concerned about that.

As the insurgency in northern Mozambique began to grow several years ago, the United States began engaging with the Mozambican government and other international partners. Townsend said the United States is not leading any military efforts in Mozambique but is willing to assist the country. He added that it is nice to see other international partners like France, Portugal and the United Kingdom becoming involved, and the European Union establishing its Training Mission in Mozambique.

“US efforts will remain modest in Mozambique,” he said, in line with Africom’s view of helping African countries come up with African solutions to African problems.

In Mozambique, Townsend believes a part of solving the insurgency will be addressing governance issues and development. Africom will continue to engage at a modest level, with port calls, niche training events and development opportunities.

Apart from Mozambique, Townsend said terrorism is a threat across the whole of Africa, and it is spreading across West Africa with Islamic State West Africa Province and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). He cautioned that the Islamic State is expanding into the Gulf of Guinea region.

After concluding his visit to South Africa, Townsend heads to Botswana, which he said is another strong partner. He would like to see engagements with other countries in the region, including Namibia and Angola.