DoD attempting to regain lost skills – Mapisa-Nqakula


The Department of Defence is making efforts to rebuild skills so it can be self-reliant and sustain itself and its capabilities, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has said, with initiatives like the Defence Works Formation and Operation Thusano.

Mapisa-Nqakula was answering questions in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on 17 June. She responded to a question by the Democratic Alliance’s Dennis Ryder on the development of scarce critical skills in the defence sector.

“There are various disciplines in the SANDF that need to be developed because of the general skills shortage in the country,” she said. “The skills shortage has had an effect in the main on the Air Force, the Navy [particularly Navy divers and combat officers] and the South African Military Health Services and to a certain extent the Army. This would be in the hard sciences like engineering.

“In order to mitigate the skills challenges, there are other initiatives like internal training programmes which we’ve initiated as well as the utilisation of foreign learning opportunities that are offered between military to military relations as per agreement that the South African National Defence Force has with other institutions of learning in other countries. We have training students and trainees for instance in countries such as the UK, in Zimbabwe, in the USA, in Cuba, in Russia and Pakistan as well as China.”

Mapisa-Nqakula said training covers professionals, technicians, plant and machine operators, pilots and doctors. Last week, student doctors graduated in Cuba and they arrived back in South Africa on 21 June. “They will be part of the South African National Defence Force because they were trained by the Defence Force.”

With regard to the Military Health Service, the Minister said there is training of doctors underway. “We have doctors who are training internationally…we have doctors who are graduating who are specialists in other countries because we realise that there will come a time when we will need even more doctors in the military than the ones we have.”

She called on using defence industry expertise to transfer maintenance and repair skills to the South African National Defence Force. “That is one of the things we are now trying to do.”

With reference to the Denel Aviation/Aero Manpower Group aircraft maintenance contract that was cancelled in 2011 over irregularities (the contract had been in place for decades with no competitive bidding), the Minister said the cancellation was due to no skills transfer to young people within the South African National Defence Force. Some specialists were due to move over to the SA Air Force to ensure aircraft maintenance was kept up.

Mapisa-Nqakula mentioned Operation Thusano, which is seeing Cuban technicians maintain, repair and preserve South African military vehicles. “In the past three, four years, since we initiated Op Thusano, we have trained more than 2 000 young people as mechanics…We are now for instance talking about navigation specialists, they too are being trained, flight engineers – there too we are trying our best to equip ourselves with the skills we don’t have.”

Ryder pointed out to the Minister that over the past year over a billion Rand was paid to Cubans to do the work of skilled personnel that the SANDF was supposed to have developed over the last decade. Mapisa-Nqakula responded that there was a shortage of trained personnel and skills were transferred by the Cubans, which also saved a lot of money as outsourcing the maintenance and repair of vehicles to the private sector would have cost ‘an arm and a leg’.

Due to frustrations with the Department of Public Works, the SANDF in 2011 launched the Defence Works Formation to take care of its building and infrastructure maintenance needs. Mapisa-Nqakula said the SANDF is training artisans, and electrical and mechanical engineers, for the Defence Works Formation. “That Defence Works Formation is not as capacitated as we would have wanted it to be. It has not as yet ventured into doing some of the projects which we would like them to carry out but there’s an effort, there’s an attempt. We’re moving forward with the limited skills…to a future where the defence force can be self-reliant and can sustain itself and its capabilities,” she said.

“The Defence Works Formation was established because of this need and enthusiasm on the side of the Defence Force to be self-reliant so that where you need, for instance your renovations of buildings, renovations of this and that, we do not rely on the Department of Public Works; soldiers must be able to step forward and do what could be done by other government departments.

“We will empower; we will have more skills and artisans in the Defence Works Formation, we will continue to utilise the Defence Force. Yes, we may have to partner with other people who have the requisite skills but we should not be relying on people outside of the Department. In essence that is what I am trying to say.”

Mapisa-Nqakula explained that a lot of skills in the SANDF have been lost over the last 25 years, but efforts are being made to try and get them back. “In the past, prior to 1994, there used to be that capacity within the South African Defence Force but when democracy came in 1994, for some reason there was a decision taken that due to budgetary constraints and so on we needed to do away with some of the capacity that we had. Some of the skills which we have done away with post democracy we now realise we actually need and it is the Defence Force that must work hard to make sure that we do have capacity to do some of the things which we are currently outsourcing.”