2019 marks 25 years since South Africans went to the polls in the country’s first democratic elections and the South African Navy (SA Navy) is marking the occasion with style.
Events celebrating 25 Years of Democracy stated in June with Admiralty House garden concerts and a fleet pulling regatta in the Simon’s Town naval harbour waters.
The highlight of the activities, through a campaign termed Project Tshintsha, was the holding of a Fleet Review on Thursday 19 September, the first since the Presidential Fleet Review of 2008.
The tradition of reviewing ships is more than 600 years old. The first fleet review was an impromptu affair, when on a whim King Henry VIII of England wished to “see the fleet together”. He treated all his captains to a banquet and had them row him around the anchored ships.
The SA Navy used the opportunity to present various vessels to the Chief of the SA Navy through a ceremonial sail past.
Like other arms of service, the SA Navy is having a torrid time battling ever decreasing budgets which is having a negative effect on fleet maintenance, leading to a reduction in hours navy vessel spend at sea every year.
“The main aim of the fleet review,” said Rear Admiral Bravo Mhlana, Flag Officer Fleet, “is to present the fleet to the Chief of the Navy amid difficult circumstances.”
“As hard as it is, the Chief of the Navy expects no less from his senior admirals,” he continued, “when it comes to accounting for the little that we get, something has to show.”
Thus, the Fleet Review is an indication by the fleet to Naval Headquarters saying that the SA Navy is still relevant and a capable force.
Addressing the media before the Fleet Review, Navy Chief Vice-Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane noted that “notwithstanding our many detractors, the South African Navy made significant strides in setting the example. This was perhaps best summed up in a news headline in 1994 dubbing us ‘the rainbow navy.’”
The small SA Navy served as a microcosm of the ultimate dream of a ‘rainbow nation,’ “one based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” he said.
Since South Africa’s return to the international fold, the SA Navy has played a significant role in support of South Africa’s foreign policy objectives, played a leading role in various regional activities, undertaken numerous rescue and support missions and flown the flag proudly during numerous international voyages.
Hlongwane noted that it is clear that the SA Navy has achieved a lot during the last twenty-five years. “History will show that it has been one of the most productive eras in our naval history and will probably be for some time to come. We have been like the proverbial bantam-weight boxer fighting in a much heavier weight division – punching above our weight.”
The men and woman of the SA Navy worked tirelessly to get as many navy vessels ready for the Fleet Review. Seven vessels conducted carefully choreographed manoeuvres in order for the fleet to line up in the correct order.
With Chief of the Navy and his guests, including former Chiefs of the Navy V Adm Robert Simpson-Anderson (1992 – 2000) and V Adm Refilwe Mudimu (2005 2014) onboard the naval hydrographic survey ship SAS Protea, the sail past commenced.
The review fleet consisted of the following (in order):
SAS Spioenkop (F147 Frigate)
SAS Amatola (F145 Frigate)
SAS Drakensberg (A301 Combat Support Ship)
SAS Makhanda ((P1569Strike craft)
SAS Galeshewe (P1567 Strike craft)
SAS Umzimkulu (M1142 Mine Hunter)
SAS Manthatisi (S101 Submarine)
As each vessel passed the SAS Protea, the Chief of the Navy saluted with the crew lining the decks shouting three cheers.
Bringing up the rear were members of the Maritime Reaction Squadron, Operational Boat Division.
Also participating was an Oryx medium-transport helicopter (carrying a large South African flag) and a Super Lynx maritime helicopter (carrying a large SA Navy flag), both from 22 Squadron. Apart from the helicopters, the South African Air Force also provided a formation of four PC-7 Mk II training aircraft from the Central Flying School. All aircraft types are commonly used on naval exercises.
Despite the significant reduction in the Navy’s defence allocation, which Hlongwane said “has a deleterious effect on our ability to execute our ordered defence commitments, we are constantly grappling with the conundrum of being funding–driven rather than mandate-driven.”
As Mhlana noted, “however restricted we are, we are still managing to meet our mandate.”
With the fleet Review, the Navy is showing the South African public that it is still relevant and doing all it can to stay ahead of the budget game.
Given that it has been eleven years since the last Fleet Review, it may be a longer time yet before the next.