SA military museums battling but not destitute

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Preservation of South Africa’s history is an important component of the national psyche with the military side doing reasonably well compared to some other institutions.

At the forefront is the Museum of Military History on the northern side of the Johannesburg Zoo and run as one of eight under the umbrella of Ditsong Museums, an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture.

Other important repositories of defence and military history in South Africa reside under the banner of three services of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). They are the SA Air Force (SAAF) Museum, headquartered at AFB Swartkop and with branches at air force bases Port Elizabeth and Ysterplaat, the SA Army School of Armour Museum in Bloemfontein and the SA Naval Museum in Simon’s Town as well as the military museum at The Castle of Good Hope.

The sorry state of at least some museums and historic sites was earlier this month pointed out by Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentarian Veronica van Dyk. The deputy shadow minister of Sport, Arts and Culture is intent on “saving” both independent and State-owned museums, institutions and historic sites in South Africa as a matter of urgency. She singled out the Apartheid Museum, Lilieslief Heritage Site and the Robben Island Museum as being close to ruins and in danger of having to close.

While the SANDF museums are, in most instances, well maintained and managed, the dedication of personnel is an over-riding factor in their continued well-being and attractiveness to visitors, both the general public and those with specific military interests.

Commander Leon Steyn, SA Naval Museum curator, is in the fortunate position of being supported by the SA Navy (SAN) fleet as a division of Naval Base Simon’s Town.

“Funding is prioritised and naval operational requirements always take precedence, meaning our share of funding is small compared to other operational units – and so it should be.

“The museum and heritage sector is not the core business of the Department of Defence (DoD) and the Navy. Additional funding, especially for museum display projects, is generated through the museum’s Non-Public Fund (NPF) which enables us to accept donations – we do not ask an entry fee at the door. We work with the Naval Heritage Trust (NHT) which supports Naval Museum initiatives and projects,” Steyn told defenceWeb.

An example of this support was “a costly professional restoration” of a damaged official portrait of as former CNavy made possible through advice and funding from the NHT.

Other SANDF museums and the one at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest building and managed as part of Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s portfolio, are not as fortunate, but not yet at the point of the examples given by Van Dyk.

A South African museum professional told defenceWeb the museum at the Castle has been without a curator for almost 10 years. “Making matters worse at this important site is the way personnel, including artists who have been there for many years, are neglected.”

The Armour Museum in the Bloemfontein’s military area Tempe has staffing problems with efforts to set up a compact, permanent staff structure not successful. This sees the museum operated by personnel detached from the nearby School of Armour, part of the SA Army Armour Formation, and other armour units, not always a win-win solution.

The professional is of the opinion the SAAF Museum at Swartkop, the air force’s oldest base, should have as officer commanding a qualified museum curator. This has not happened although the enthusiasm brought to the position by former museum bosses including Mike O’Connor, Willie Nel, Neil Thomas and Dave Knoesen ensured the Swartkop operation was well known and visited. This writer was fortunate to encounter a group of international military aviation history enthusiasts at the SAAF Museum some years ago and their combined appreciation of the facility and displays as one of the best they had seen in the world rang true at the time.

Loss of personnel, whether volunteers with a passion for military aviation or from SAAF units, has seen the SAAF Museum branch at AFB Ysterplaat lose some gloss. “Ysters’ saving grace is its passionate volunteer group in the form of a “friends group,” the professional said.

That the Military History Museum in Johannesburg is brought to the attention of the senior command cadre of the SANDF is in no small measure due to outgoing Chief Reserves, Major General Roy Andersen. He recently accompanied Vice Admiral Asiel Kubu, SANDF Chief: Human Resources, to the facility and also took in the General Dan Pienaar Gun Park on the same site.

Today (18 May) is International Museum Day, celebrated for the first time in 1977, 42 years ago. Its objective is to raise awareness of t museums as an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, co-operation and peace among people. Organised on 18 May each year or around this date, events and activities to mark International Museum Day can last a day, a weekend or a week.

The SAAF Museum will mark International Museum Day 2021 under the theme “The Future of Museums: Recover and Re-imagine”. With this theme, the air force museum seeks to create, imagine and share new practices creating common values and innovative solutions for current social and environmental challenges.



The SAAF Museum is open to the public from 17 to 23 May.