President Cyril Ramaphosa has emphasised the importance of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and its roles in disaster relief, peacekeeping and border safeguarding at the 2019 Armed Forces Day commemorations in Cape Town.
Ramaphosa, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF, said 21 February is not just about appreciating South Africa’s active-duty soldiers, military veterans and those that paid the ultimate price, but it is also an opportunity to show the country the capabilities, state of readiness and purpose of the armed forces.
“The roles that the military plays are diverse,” Ramaphosa said. “We all recall the iconic image of a young mother, clutching her new-born baby Rosita as she was pulled to the safety of a SANDF chopper during the Mozambican floods of 2000.
“We also recall with pride the deployment of the South African Military Health Service across hospitals in Gauteng in 2017 after industrial action nearly paralysed services in the province. A year later, military health personnel were dispatched to Mahikeng Hospital in the North West, where their intervention averted the near collapse of health services in the facility.
“At present we have a specialist team of army personnel working in the Vaal area to contain a sewage spillage that is threatening the health and well-being of millions of people,” the Commander-in-Chief said.
He added that the SANDF has also been involved in international peacekeeping missions on the continent, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo under the UN Stabilisation Mission.
“We currently have around 1 200 troops in the DRC and are also part of the Force Intervention Brigade together with Tanzanian and Malawian troops. We continue to support operations in Africa under the United Nations and the African Union.”
The president said that whether engaging in anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel, battling veld fires in the Cape, doing border patrols as part of Operation Corona or attending to critical infrastructure, “our national defence force is a source of enduring pride.”
He said this pride needs to be imparted to the next generation and as a result needs high-quality recruits. “The armed forces are a home for the youth of this country. In 2018, 1 700 young people were recruited through the Military Skills Development Programme and successfully placed in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Medical Health Services. They commenced training in January at their respective training units and we wish them well.”
Ramaphosa singled out the Navy, host of the 2019 edition of Armed Forces Day, as having a critical role to play. “We have a 3 000 km long coastline, the third largest in Africa, and are strategically located on one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes. Over 96 per cent of our own exports and imports are carried by sea. South Africa’s exclusive economic zone is currently the extent of one and a half million square kilometres,” he pointed out.
“With such a large ocean jurisdiction, the need for effective maritime protection by our navy has never been greater…The South African Navy is, and will remain, key to supporting our National Maritime Security Strategy and advancing our vision to grow our oceans economy. Like many other coastal countries, we are impacted by the illegal exploitation of our marine resources, which seriously threatens the sustainability of our oceans.
“It is upon our Navy that we rely to protect our trade routes, to cooperate with neighbouring countries and international bodies to promote regional maritime security, and to advance our developmental objectives as a country.”
Due to climate change and extreme weather, Ramaphosa said the SANDF will be required to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief during military assistance operations both in the country and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
“It is also the responsibility of our armed forces to guard our country’s borders against the infiltration of transnational criminal syndicates, the flow of contraband, human trafficking, undocumented migrants and other illicit activities.
“It is imperative therefore that all our armed forces are supported to enable them to respond effectively to current realities and threats, as well as emerging ones.”
Ramaphosa said that as Commander-in-Chief, he values soldiers’ contributions towards the well-being, prosperity and upliftment of the people of South Africa.
Armed Forces Day is held on 21 February each year to mark the day of the sinking of the troop carrier SS Mendi in 1917, when 805 people perished in the English Channel on their way to the Western Front during the First World War.
The soldiers aboard the SS Mendi were volunteers in the then South African Native Labour Corps. They were among 25,000 others who joined the corps.
Ramaphosa said South Africa is grateful to all soldiers who died for their country. “It does not matter how or where they fell – they paid the ultimate price,” he said. “On National Armed Forces Day we honour our veterans and those still in uniform. We also honour their families, for the sacrifice of serving in uniform is also the sacrifice of a family and of a community.”
After delivering his speech, Ramaphosa officiated over a military parade by members of the SANDF and dozens of military vehicles and equipment that were deployed from across the country for armed forces week.
This was followed by a capability demonstration that began with two soldiers swimming ashore to recce the beach. A mock hostage rescue was carried out whilst Gripen and Hawk jets provided top cover and ‘bombed’ targets on the ground. Rooivalk attack helicopters, supported by Lynx and A109 rotorcraft, struck ground targets whilst Oryx helicopters dropped off and picked up soldiers.
A Type 209 submarine, Meko frigate, strike craft and several small Navy boats, including landing craft, sailed close offshore.
The South African Air Force opened Armed Forces Day commemorations with a mass flypast. This included flag-carrying helicopters, C-130 and C212 transport aircraft, King Air utility aircraft and Hawk and Gripen fast jets as well as the Silver Falcons aerobatic display team together with PC-7s from Air Force Base Langebaanweg.
The next edition of Armed Forces Day is due to be held in Polokwane next year.