Ngema looks back on SAAF time


Retired SA Air Force (SAAF) two-star general Nhlanhla Lucky Job Ngema was, according to the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), the first black South African to qualify as a licenced air transport pilot.

He was also, SANDF social media has it, the SAAF’s first black general officer and founder of the air force’s aviation awareness programme Siyandiza (We Are Flying).

During his years in exile including a stint in Nigeria, Ngema managed to qualify for a Zimbabwean work permit as a pilot doing development work and flying surveyors all over Zimbabwe.

In 1960 he earned his airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) in Texas and took up a post at Air Zimbabwe.

With South Africa moving toward reconciliation the now retired two-star general was advised to “normalise his relations with the ANC”. This saw him appointed to the transport formulation policy desk at what was Shell House, now Luthuli House, in 1993.

“Given his flying profile, the ANC’s original intention was for him to join SA Airways, but that fell through due to resistance within SAA. He was then recruited by Joe Modise, earmarked as South Africa’s first post-apartheid defence minister, to integrate into the SAAF,” the SANDF reports.

“In 1994 Ngema integrated into the SAAF as a colonel and was appointed director integration between 1994 and1997, working with the British Military Advisory Team (BMAT) to facilitate transition of NSF (non-statutory force) personnel into the SAAF.

“This included checking each NSF soldier’s background against a typical SADF soldier profile and then determining where in the system to place them and at what rank level. This proved difficult as the SADF soldier profile began at 18 years, while an MK/APLA soldier could have gone into exile as early as 12 years old. ‘Because bullets at the time were not choosing age, they were fired into crowds forcing kids to make adult choices, forcing them to take on the dreams of their people, as children,’” Ngema is reported as saying.

In 1998 he was promoted to brigadier general in the post of Director: Systems Evaluation and a year later he was named General Officer Commanding AFB Waterkloof.

In 2000 he was promoted to Chief Director Air Policy and Plans, making him responsible for policy strategy, resource allocation in the SAAF well as Chief Director of the National Aviation Academy.

His passion for transforming aviation in South Africa led him to form the Siyandiza aviation awareness programme in 1996 and the DoD Youth Foundation programme in 2000.

“When it came to the previously disadvantaged, I insisted a backward curve be drawn indicative of an allowance for pre-development because not all people start from the same place”, Ngema said. His intention with these programmes was to “mobilise forces countrywide to tackle transformation and to force the air force to change its recruitment methods by making allowance for black people’s lack of access to Eurocentric practices.”