Doornkop takes a step forward


The Department of Public Works (DPW) has completed the first phase of the upgrade of the notorious Doornkop military base in the south of Johannesburg and this morning officially handed over the improved facilities to the South African Army. The formerly dilapidated base has been home to 21 SA Infantry Battalion since 2008.

Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu in March said her department will be spending R1 billion a year, for up to 15 years, to improve military facilities. Giving an oral answer to a question asked by ANC-Gauteng Member of the National Council of Provinces, AG Matila, Sisulu said she was “hoping also that from this year, we can put aside R1 billion which have been given to us to deal with upgrading of our facilities and annually we can put aside R1 billion for the next 15 years.
“If we are all still here in the next 15 years, we would have the kind of the state of the art accommodation in the defence force that I think they deserve, that is what we have budgeted for,” she said in answer to question as to whether her department has taken any steps to upgrade the facilities of the defence force.
“We are engaged in extensive upgrading of our facilities and to just mention a few, we are dealing with two military hospitals where we had to upgrade them. We are dealing with SA Military Battalion base in Mpumalanga etc. In all, I think that we prioritised about 10 projects,” she continued.
“As of this year we have budgeted for an average of R425 million to deal with the upgrading of our facilities. I need to indicate to the member that unfortunately, we are tied in a relationship where we are dependent on the DPW, to do all the repair work and maintenance for the Department of Defence. We are hoping that we can move towards a situation and the relationship with the Department of Public Works, where they will understand that it is possible for us to upgrade our own facilities. We are working on a Memorandum of Understanding in that regard.”

Then-Minister of Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde in December last year visited a number of military bases and said contractors who do shoddy work will be blacklisted at the National Treasury.

Under the current dispensation, the Department of Public Works (DPW) is the title-deed owner of fixed state property, including all military base and buildings. As a consequence, as tenants, the defence force is not allowed to repair, maintain or upgrade its facilities, even though it has the ability to do so. A further complication is that the DPW expects its tenants to budget for such repairs, maintenance and upgrades; which generally they do not, leading to a steady deterioration of facilities.

In November 2009 the interim National Defence Force Service Commission in a report condemned the state of Doornkop and Lenz bases. Sisulu had appointed the commission in September 2009 to probe service conditions in the military following a mutinous riot by alleged members of the SA National Defence Union near the Union Buildings in August that year, many of them soldiers from 21 SAI Battalion. An earlier report noted the poor facilities were impacting “on the readiness as well as morale of members of the SANDF.”

21 Bn turns 35

Meanwhile, the unit is also today celebrating its 35th birthday. In 1973 the apartheid government decided to reserve a long-held policy against training black soldiers. The next January, a team of ten, led by Major MW Pretorius were sent to the then-Bantu Training College at Baviaanspoort, north of Pretoria, for an “orientation phase”. In March 1974, the first 16 volunteers were recruited and trained as security guards. A second group of 30 were recruited in August and trained as instructors. In April 1975, authority was given for blacks to attest in the then-Permanent Force. On December 1, 1976, the Bantu Training Centre became a self-accounting unit and moved to Lenz, near Lenasia, south of Johannesburg.

The centre was then renamed 21 Battalion on the 21st birthday of the SA Infantry Corps (January 22, 1977). During that year, the first recruits of what would become 1 Transkei Battalion (now 14 SAI Bn) and 1 Ovambo Battalion received training. By 1977 the government had overcome various difficulties and in May began training a company of infantry. “As a result of the operational success achieved by this company in the Caprivi, authority was granted in 1978 for a second operational company to be trained,” an undated unit history sheet notes. Simultaneously, the first recruits of the Venda Defence Force began training.

In 1979 the unit gained its first black chaplain, a Reverend Booysen. In 1984 21 Bn became a corps school. Its first task was to train the first recruits of the KwaNdebele Defence Force (the later 115 Bn). In July 1986 two more operational companies were established. A decade after the apartheid government had decided to arm blacks – something that was ideologically inconceivable to the National Party of 1948, in July 1987, 21 Bn became an operational infantry battalion. An infantry company was posted to the then-Northern Transvaal Command as part of a reaction force. A further three companies were recruited and trained in the same year.

In 1988, four companies were deployed to northern Namibia and two of these deployed into southern Angola. In 1989 the SA Defence Force appointed its first black honorary colonel – Mr Justice Tshungu – for 21 Bn. On January 1, 1991, the unit became 21 SAI Bn and in June 1997 the officer commanding became a full colonel with two operational battalions, 211 and 212 under command. Each was commanded by a Lt Colonel. In September 1999 this structure was abolished and the unit reverted to a four company infantry battalion with a reconnaissance platoon.

The battalion recently returned from a very successful border security deployment in the Komatipoort area and the Kruger Park.

Pic: An ablusion block at Doornkop as pictured in September 2008.