Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Acting Chief of the South African Air Force (SAAF), Major General Mzayifani Innocent Buthelezi, was forced to deliver his Air Force Day address online, where he urged personnel to fight on through difficult times brought about by the pandemic and budget cuts.
1 February usually sees the SAAF mark its official founding with a parade, awards ceremony and flypasts, but the decision this year not to go live is in line with government regulations for its current adjusted level three lockdown regulations.
“Under normal circumstances, Air Force Day is celebrated with pomp and jubilation through the country. However, with the new normal brought by the COVID-19, we are here to celebrate the Air Force through this virtual event,” Buthelezi said in his digital speech. “As we acknowledge the history of our Air Force and celebrate 27 years of a democratic South African Air Force, may we rise to the occasion to rise to dissolve the barriers of race, division and political divide. Let us embrace our differences with understanding and compassion.
“Our museums on all the bases have captured the timeline of a history of the Air Force to date with a deep sense of entirety and in totality. As we strive to embrace our collective heritage and social cohesion, the Air Force invites you to participate in the country’s nation-building efforts where the Air Force observes days of honour and remembrance with appropriate ceremonies and in context. As we mark the Air Force’s history pre-1994 we must be wary of the glaring human rights violation that occurred,” Buthelezi said.
“Transformation over the past two and a half decades has brought about a change in composition, structure and hardware, with a new vision since 2013 with an Air Force that inspires confidence.”
After exploring the history of the SAAF, Buthelezi looked at the present and the challenges facing the service, notably funding. “For some time now defence spending has been in a critical state of decline. The Defence Review of 2015 has been developed with a plan to arrest the decline of the South African National Defence Force. However, unfortunately no funding has been received to attend to the decreasing capabilities of the South African National Defence Force. The Air Force’s air defence capabilities are under pressure including air transport and maritime capability, very important person capability, air combat capability and, command and control capability.”
Buthelezi warned that the continued reduction of flying hours will impact negatively on safe Air Force flight operations.
“Of great concern to the Air Force is the status of facilities and infrastructure. This is a direct result of a lack of maintenance of state property and a closing of the maintenance backlog. The main reason for the status of the facilities is the lack of maintenance coupled with normal wear and tear and neglect, and ageing of buildings. The current decline in facilities and infrastructure not only affect the Air Force’s operational capabilities but has a direct impact on the morale of South Africa Air Force personnel especially during challenging times such as COVID-19.
“As a client of the National Department of Public Works, known as NDPW, the Air Force cannot take responsibility for maintaining said property. We do not have the mandate, or the proper expertise. The Air Force as occupants are therefore forced to maintenance these facilities using a limited operational budget.”
In spite of challenges, Buthelezi said the SAAF managed to respond to President Cyril Ramaphosa declaring a state of disaster on 15 March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Operation Notlela, “the Air Force delivered exemplary service and reported thousands of operational flying hours. We will continue to perform our mandated task in the service of our country,” he said.
The Acting Chief of the SAAF said the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc across the globe and many if not all employees have to adjust to a new dynamic. He said the pandemic was causing anxiety and loneliness amongst members and affecting morale. “We must remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Please remain vigilant and adhere to non-pharmaceutical interventions. Let us all fight the spread of this pandemic.”
Buthelezi outlined some of the SAAF’s priorities over the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF). The SAAF, he said, will focus on the following areas: explore the establishment of war rooms to monitor stock and track the movement of components; establish warehouses to reduce delivery turnaround times and address warranty challenges; train and certify engineers and technicians in the Air Force to establish a an inhouse maintenance capability; reconfigure the collective heritage programme to ensure the display of an all-inclusive history of the South African Air Force; and decentralise recruitment to ensure that the outreach programmes culminate into a feeder system for the south African air force.
“The Air Force will have to innovatively deliver on its intent to remain a small, responsive force that is acknowledged as the leading air force on the continent, able to fulfil its obligations in accordance with the constitution and the intentions of the commander-in-chief in the effective, efficient and economical manner,” Buthelezi concluded. “We in the Air Force face many challenges and I am confident I can count on each member of the air force to overcome the difficulties.”