Last month President Cyril Ramaphosa put more than 70 000 uniformed personnel on effective standby to assist in the national effort fighting coronavirus and particularly to flatten the infection curve.
A presidential letter to Parliament in the third week of April informed the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) Ramaphosa was “employing” the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), the Reserve Force and auxiliaries to augment government resources as South Africa grapples with the pandemic. This is in addition to the just on three thousand SANDF personnel, mostly infantry soldiers, deployed nationally late in March to support police in enforcing lockdown regulations.
Apart from broad statements regarding the use of military personnel to assist in areas such as healthcare, water provision and other services normally associated with provincial government and local authorities, no definitive statement has come from those tasked with communicating in the Department of Defence (DoD) and the national defence force. Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula made mention of soldiers driving “big trucks” to places where the SANDF will set up mortuaries and there has also been talk of soldiers guarding government approved quarantine locales. A Democratic Alliance (DA) MP maintains the majority of these sites, apparently selected and approved by Patricia de Lille’s Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) are hotels, lodges and resorts at the upper end of the tariff scale.
What is not known is how screening and testing by the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) is progressing to ensure soldiers and others wearing uniform are not themselves infected and thus carriers who can pass on coronavirus during execution of their duties. Similarly, there is no indication as yet of whether soldiers deployed on the border protection tasking, Operation Corona, are screened regularly and, if needed, tested. This is because they face exposure to the virus when detaining illegal immigrants (in current politically correct terms “undocumented persons”) and smugglers.
defenceWeb put questions in this regard to the corporate communications directorate of the SANDF and when no response was received, to the responsible officer at SAMHS corporate communication. The questions followed a statement indicating SAMHS would start “a mass screening and testing campaign for the (South African) military community” on 22 April. At the time of publication neither had responded, despite the enquiries being more than a week old.
Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Kobus Marais who holds the defence and military veterans portfolio for his party has long maintained the SANDF is lacking when it comes to communicating with its various publics. These include Parliament, portfolio and standing committees on defence and military veterans as well as the general public.
He told defenceWeb he was informed screening and testing of SANDF personnel was being done.
“Worryingly, I do not know and haven’t been able to establish the extent of testing. I’m told some deployed soldiers tested positive, but do not have confirmation.
“My feeling is all soldiers should be tested. This applies to the Operation Notlela deployment as well as operations Copper and Corona. It is the right of a soldier to know what his health condition is and the same applies to his or her ‘owner’ (the SANDF). Soldiers’ lives are valuable and important to their families, the national defence force and South Africa,” he said.
He has heard of military personnel testing positive for coronavirus and subjected to self-isolation and maintains this should become SOP (standard operating procedure).
As far as SANDF communication is concerned Marais is adamant “open and transparent information must be there for the public as well as oversight authorities such as Parliament and its portfolio and standing committees”.