Defence budget cuts did not impact Lohatlha fire deaths – Maphwanya

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Budget cuts were not a factor in last week’s deadly fire at the SA Army’s Lohatlha Combat Training Centre, SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya has said.

Maphwanya was speaking to the media on Thursday from the Northern Cape facility after Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise presided over a memorial ceremony for the six soldiers who were killed in the blaze. She was accompanied by Deputy Defence Minister Thabang Makwetla and Acting Secretary for Defence Dr Thobekile Gamede.

They died after being caught in the runaway veld fire on Friday 6 October, while another 19 were treated for injuries – one remains recovering in hospital (a seventh soldier died at Lohatlha in an unrelated incident). SA Army vehicles, including 12 Casspir armoured personnel carriers and 14 other vehicles, were destroyed by the fire along with tents, soldiers’ personal belongings and other equipment.

Maphwanya said the equipment lost will be replaced from existing stocks. “When you go to war, you will lose equipment,” he said. “We have a concept of relief in line,” he explained, and will use equipment in store to replace what was lost.

He added that Exercise Vuk’uhlome, which is what the soldiers at Lohatlha are preparing for, will continue. Such exercises are necessary for the SANDF to be prepared and safeguard South Africa, he said.

It is not yet clear how the veld fire started, with an investigation still underway. What is known is that it began on a nearby mining site on Friday morning and had spread to the Combat Training Centre by the early afternoon. The SANDF were notified of the fire mid-morning and Maphwanya said five SANDF fire control units were used to combat the blaze but multiple fire fronts, high winds of over 70 km/h and shifting wind directions meant the SANDF were quickly overwhelmed, with the fire easily jumping the fire breaks in place. “Most damage was done in the least expected areas. The wind kept turning,” he said.

“This fire has nothing to do with budget cuts,” he added. “It could have happened anywhere, anytime. We need more money, we need to rejuvenate, but budget cuts were not a factor in this incident.”

Modise, addressing assembled soldiers and family members of the deceased, said “over the years we have lost a number of soldiers internally and abroad. We take these lives not for granted because our sons and daughters agreed to serve,” upholding the rights and privileges of others.

Modise pledged to make sure the dependents of the dead soldiers are looked after and that their children will be able to study. Maphwanya emphasised that the SANDF takes care of its own and the Chief of the SANDF Education Trust will also provide for dependents. He said the fund has to date raised R40 million and supported the education of dozens of children, offering support above and beyond that provided by the government for the families of fallen soldiers.

Modise said those who died at Lohatlha will not be forgotten and will have roads named after them at the Combat Training Centre.

“We have lost a lot in the last few weeks but we have not lost our hope and strength,” she said, speaking in reference to the three submariners who died on 20 September after being hit by a rogue wave during an exercise, and the four soldiers who were killed that same day in a Samil crash while en route to Lohatlha.

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