COVID-19, the disease that is claiming the lives of just under two percent of those infected in South Africa, is shutting down businesses and throwing already struggling citizens further into poverty. The disruption the disease has bought is seen in every facet of life including the functioning of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
The SANDF’s Operation Notlela, to fight the spread of COVID-19, has turned thousands of soldiers into frontline workers. defenceWeb recently had the chance to interview Joint Operations Operational Communication Officer Captain (SA Navy) Jaco Theunissen to discuss how Operation Notlela is going as well as the border security Operation Corona and SANDF peacekeeping efforts.
The number of SANDF personnel on the ground for Operation Notlela is just over 8 000. “But just to be a hundred percent sure, we have made provision for 20 000 soldiers to be deployed although it does not mean that we are physically 20 000 soldiers on the ground but there is provision to grow the deployment rapidly,” he said.
The SANDF has deployed its healthcare workers as well as soldiers to help screen and test people for COVID-19 and to date just under 100 000 civilians have been screened, with nearly 5 000 testing positive for the virus. The SANDF has also been utilizing inflatable tents to augment hospitals and Theunissen said, “The main function taking place at these hospitals as a core function is assisting with scanning and screening and then if there is a requirement for other specific medical services.”
The South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) has also been deployed to the Eastern Cape to bolster healthcare facilities and personnel there, which is one of three national COVID-19 hotspots. More than 100 military medics are serving in the Eastern Cape.
In line with the rules of engagement for Operation Notlela, soldiers assist police in combatting all forms of criminality. This includes manning roadblocks and supporting the South African Police Service in its duties.
Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula last month said, “We are central to the deployment of forces as an integral part of the enforcement of the national state of disaster. In addition to the military health elements, there are a range of capabilities that have been deployed, including but not limited to the following: engineers for bridge building and water purification in various communities; air defence and maritime capabilities; landward capabilities for security and direct support to the police services and other entities of government.”
“The men and women in our armed forces have been in the eye of the storm of the coronavirus pandemic, assuming roles that have been arrogated to them by the Commander-in-Chief acting in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and the Defence Act. Our role as the defence establishment has been to ensure support for the fight against the pandemic through the National Department of Health by providing the required expertise inherent in our South African Military Health Services (SAMHS). We have the provided health professionals across the spectrum in all the provinces, drawn from the regulars, reserve forces and volunteers. The health care professionals provide services to our own members and the National Health Department – through primary health care teams for screening, testing and tracing purposes across the country; mass quarantine sites in KZN, Western Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo respectively; decontamination teams, to mention but a few,” the minister said.
Police, healthcare workers and other civil servants are at the frontline of efforts to combat the pandemic and unfortunately have recorded casualties. The SANDF is no exception. “Yes, we do have people that have contracted the disease,” Theunissen said. “Even in the defence force, our numbers are also very low and the reason for that is we follow all the [World Health Organisation] protocols.” SANDF personnel and soldiers are being scanned and screened as well as sanitized along with equipment. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is being used according to international standards. Operation Notlela has claimed the lives of three soldiers so far, but not from COVID-19 as these deaths were mainly road accidents.
Operation Corona, to safeguard South Africa’s borders, is still running normally with some augmentation taking place. At the start of South Africa’s state of disaster, Theunissen said one of the functions of the SANDF was to augment borderline patrols. One of the SA Navy’s offshore patrol vessels has been assigned to the North-Eastern coastline and border of South Africa and Theunissen confirmed that a submarine patrol did take place in May/June this year to ensure no illegal fishing or smuggling of contraband is taking place. The SA Air Force has also been tasked to augment the SANDF’s capacity to protect its borders.
“We have a constitutional obligation to do our border patrols: that is land, sea and air border patrols. There are patrols scheduled but when they will take place, how they will take place, which areas and what vessels will be utilized will be decided closer to the time, depending on what the situation is,” Theunissen said.
Theunissen stated that whether Operation Copper, the maritime patrol mission in the Mozambique Channel, is happening and what vessel will be used is still to be decided.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected military exercises, but not mission readiness training, Theunissen said. All military exercises, both internally and with other countries, have been cancelled for 2020. The SANDF will only be able to reschedule when and where exercises take place depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic develops. Shared Accord, a joint exercise intended to enhance US and African forces’ capabilities to perform peacekeeping operations in support of United Nations and African Union mandates, will not be happening this year. The SAAF will not be staging a Winter Solstice exercise either.
Mission readiness training (MRT) has been taking place ahead of 15 South African Infantry Battalion’s deployment to the Democratic Republic of Congo later this year, replacing 2 South African Infantry Battalion. Theunissen reassured that the SANDF takes MRT very seriously as it is essential before any mission can take place.