The largest deployment to date of South Africa’s airmen, military medics, sailors and soldiers formed part of government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with a Presidential call early on in the national state of disaster “employing” 80 000 military personnel to mitigate impacts.
In her introduction to the latest Department of Defence (DoD) annual report for 2020/21, immediate past defence and military veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula calls it “the greatest deployment in our history”.
“It was more than just putting boots on the ground, ensuring citizens adhered to social distancing and wearing masks. We delivered in many unseen ways including providing drinking water and building bridges in remote areas that would otherwise have been cut off or deploying medical professionals to areas that were buckling and would have collapsed under the strain of the pandemic.”
According to the annual report, “approximately 8 429 personnel” from the regular and reserve forces as well as auxiliaries were utilised in Operation Notlela, the name generated for the state of disaster deployment.
“Deployed force levels varied according to the levels of the state of national disaster, within an available force level of 20 000 as per the latest Presidential Minute,” the report notes.
“Capabilities deployed included lockdown enforcement elements, healthcare practitioners, engineers, air and maritime capabilities with multiple tasks of assisting frontline departments such as the SA Police Service (SAPS), national departments of Health, International Relations and Co-operation, Corporate Governance, Public Works and Infrastructure, Home Affairs, Education and Water and Sanitation among others including deployment in provinces and districts.”
What the report terms “operational activities” done by soldiers during Operation Notlela included roadblocks, vehicle check points, foot patrols in co-operation with police, including operations against criminal elements undermining lockdown regulations, such as involvement in illicit trading and transportation of contraband, explosives, weapon smuggling and high-level cross border crimes.
Other co-ordinated operations saw soldiers deployed for humanitarian assistance, primary healthcare, water purification and water provision, mass education about COVID-19, screening, testing, scanning and quarantining.
Notlela officially ended on 30 September last year with Presidential authorisation, thousands of military personnel remained active until lockdown restrictions were eased.