SAAF centenary: When the past collides with the present


The South African Air Force (SAAF) is generally accepted as having been formed on 1 February 1920. This makes it the second oldest Commonwealth air force, but celebrating the centenary of its founding is under intense debate.

Not the actual date of formation, but whether something as momentous as 100 years of continuous organisational existence is worthy of celebration in the new democratic South Africa.

The SAAF’s first operation was during the 1922 industrial strike when it supported ground forces engaged in suppressing the striking White miners on the Witwatersrand. The SAAF participated in the Second World War, supplied 20 aircrews for the Berlin Airlift and sent an all-volunteer 2 Squadron to Korea on behalf of the United Nations between 1950 and 1953.

During the Border War, the South African Army was on the front lines of military activity against the anti-Apartheid movements in Angola and other southern African countries as well as directly participating in patrolling the country’s restless townships during the dying days of the Apartheid era. The SAAF played an active part in the Border War, flying over and attacking targets all over southern Africa. Unlike the Army, the SAAF (as is the nature of an air force) had a detached and somewhat anonymous contact with those at the other end of its sights.

Over its history, the SAAF has also played a vital role in supporting the people of South Africa, and the region, with humanitarian assistance, mountain rescues, fire-fighting and flood relief.

But as military commentator Darren Olivier has observed, the racially exclusive pre-1994 history of the SAAF cannot be celebrated uncritically.

“There are clear ways to maturely address an inherited history and to acknowledge its continuity without celebrating its worst parts,” Olivier says.

Initial indications late last year were that the SAAF, despite debilitating budgetary restrictions, would be celebrating its centenary. Given the politics in South Africa, it was reasonable to assume that precedence would be placed on post 1994 activities, but the centenary of the SAAF would be recognised and commemorated as has been done for previous SAAF milestones in the democratic era.

But it appears that things have taken a decidedly political direction. The big debate is: Is today’s SAAF a continuation of the pre-1994 air force or is it a new organisation not willing to acknowledge its history?

Conflicting commentary from within the SAAF and senior leadership of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has contributed to the confusion of whether to celebrate this momentous occasion or not.

The SAAF has unveiled a rather uninspiring logo, celebrating neither 100 years of existence nor 25 years of democracy (which will be 26 years come 27 April). Featuring the African Fish Eagle emblem of the SAAF and a Social Services-like image placed on a bastardised SAAF roundel, the mottos is: Embracing our Collective Heritage.

By not referring to “100 years” nor “25/26 years”, the logo is a compromise with the SAAF trying to find the middle ground by antagonising neither politician nor veteran.

Olivier agrees that “choosing to avoid the issue of how to commemorate pre-1994 history, rather than addressing it head-on, has produced an outcome that’ll please no-one.”

Indeed, not only Air Force veterans but serving members (both Black and White) are outraged.

However, the SAAF should never have been placed in this predicament because this question was already settled in 1994.

The reorganisation of the then South African Defence Force (SADF) began more than a year prior to the first democratic election in April 1994. As part of the Transitional Executive Council – Sub-Council on Defence, the Joint Military Coordinating Council (JMCC) paved the way for the establishment of what is now the SANDF. Members of the JMCC included representatives of the SADF, MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC) and the former homeland TBVC states.

Of interest is the minutes of the Ninth JMCC meeting held on 13 April 1994. Under the heading of “Names of the Arms of the Service,” it is recorded that the South African Air Force “requested that the name SAAF be retained. The main reason was that the SAAF was the world’s second oldest air force and would loose (sic) its status if the SAAF is to be renamed, e.g. the South African National Air Force (SANAF).”

A discussion followed on the renaming of the other arms of service, for which it is recorded that “a real difference in opinion occurred”, but the “JMCC decided that the name SAAF is to be retained.”

The status of the SAAF was confirmed at the Eleventh meeting of the JMCC held on 22 April 1994, where it is recorded: “The SCD (Sub-Council for Defence) stressed the fact that it took pride in the status of the SAAF as the world’s second oldest air force and has decided to retain the name SA Air Force (SAAF), due to its status. The SCD has strongly recommended that the name of the SA Army, SA Navy and SA Medical Service be retained, without the addition of the term “National” in front of the arm of the service.”

It is thus clear that the current SAAF is a continuation of the pre-1994 air force, as agreed to by the most senior political and military leaders from both sides. Any influence to negate or downplay the fact that the SAAF is celebrating its centenary in 2020 is political in nature and contradicting elements of the 1994 transition.

In fact, the SAAF celebrated SAAF 75 (1995) and SAAF 80 (2000) with official SAAF logos and appropriate celebrations. SAAF 95 (2015) was still celebrated, but included “21 years of Democracy” in a stylish logo that still acknowledged 95 years of the SAAF whilst recognising the new democratic South Africa.

The lack of acknowledging the pre-1994 existence by senior SANDF commanders places the SAAF in a quandary.

“The SAAF is in two minds about this question, as units have kept their pre-1994 battle honours and related history. Does it make sense that we pretend that the SAAF has no continuity, but that its flying squadrons do? Why is one acceptable but not the other?” Olivier notes.

It is likely that senior SAAF officers fought hard to commemorate the centenary. This must have resulted in conflict between the political nature of certain leaders and the professional airman. Although apolitical, the SANDF (of which the SAAF is a component) is still subservient to the President and the ruling party of the day.

So sudden was the decision to not celebrate the centenary of the SAAF that Air Force Bases and squadrons were advised only at a late stage to cancel planned festivities.

This put the Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Fabian Msimang (a known supporter of the SAAF Museum and an inclusive SAAF history) in a very difficult position. In his Air Force Prestige Day Parade address at AFB Swartkop on 31 January 2020, Msimang noted that he was the “21st Air Chief in the pre and post 1994 history of the South Air African Force.”

In acknowledging the history of the Air Force as well as celebrating 25 years of a democratic SAAF, Msimang touched on the formation of the SAAF, when in 1920 General Jan Smuts requested Sir Pierre van Ryneveld to start an air force.

Whilst there may be no “official” mention of a centenary, the proud airmen and women of the SAAF still found ways to commemorate the occasion. Doves and balloons were released at the Prestige Day Parade, large formations of aircraft flew over and small parades and gatherings were held at various air bases around the country. Even the established SAAF Museum monthly Flying Training Day at AFB Swartkop on 1 February featured many current operational aircraft that would otherwise not have participated.

The SAAF is still expected to commemorate its 100 years since establishment at the SAAF Museum Airshow in May (AFB Swartkop) and at the African Aerospace and Defence (AAD) Expo in September (AFB Waterkloof).

Whilst politics may interfere in celebrating the centenary, it is only by recognising our past that we can truly define our future.

This opinion piece was written by Dean Wingrin.