Retired major general calls for Operation Notlela review

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It is welcome to hear President Cyril Ramaphosa encouraging the public to air critical views helpful in shaping the state of the nation during the national disaster that is the coronavirus pandemic writes retired major general Ashton Sibango.

“The initial impression created when the COVID-19 lockdown was introduced, was critical and dissenting views would not be entertained in terms of the legislative framework regulating the COVID-19 State of National Disaster. As a result, some decided to quarantine critical views to show respect for the authorities and avoid finding oneself on the wrong side of the law.

“Apart from respect this silence is influenced by, among others, the need for space for leadership to think, analyse, plan and execute the chosen course of action at all levels. The idea was to allow the leadership to unleash their talents, without undue pressure, and display their capacities in a co-ordinated manner. In all of this, South Africans harboured the hope leadership would be imbued with collective responsibility to confront the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

These considerations contributed to “quarantining some voices of reason” he writes. “The voices came from a wide spectrum of society and would have contributed positively generating fresh ideas and possible alternative solutions in developing immediate, short to medium term and follow-on plans.”

Sibango “wishes to journey” with officials active in the public and private sectors. “I encourage them to adopt the new culture of service they demonstrated in the face of this national disaster, as a new ethos in serving South Africa and her people.  They showed when faced with great odds they can pursue the fulfilment of national objectives as regards change to better the lives of South Africans”.

“Having said this, critical comments should be welcomed. Constructive critical views are positive, healthy and developmental in meaning and intent. That is why there is a ‘monitoring and evaluation’ phase as the cornerstone of courses of action which should lead to further analysis and assessment to develop appropriate alternatives responsive to emergent unappreciated challenges.

“The outbreak and spread of a virus of the nature and magnitude of coronavirus is unprecedented in the history of present generations. Challenges around coronavirus are further compounded by the virus’ invisibility and the speed with which it spreads, infects and kills. Effective responses are further complicated by public ignorance, complacency, difficult living conditions and trust deficit, all complicating implementation of preventative measures.”

The retired two-star general makes comments not levelled against individuals or groups, “but solely aimed at contributing to revitalising existing options and plans in the national interest”.

“Employment of the military is not a strange move in the face of national disaster or even in a state of emergency.  Deployment is necessary and mandatory. There are areas of public concern requiring critical analysis. These include, but are not limited to the nature of the threat, character of leadership, concept of operations and the nature and quality of the outcome as a deliverable.

“Dealing with virus diseases is a speciality in the medical and health environment. All public resources and those contributed by the private sector come together in support of the Department of Health and reinforce the overall national endeavour to defeat the pandemic. Equally, national defence force resources are marshalled to support the national health emergency response.

“It was assumed when the Ministry of Defence received warning directives from the President, the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) would be deployed to support government and the people with the force undertaking a strategic appreciation to clarify its roles and functions as well as identify potential risks and implications. This was the first virus disaster the SANDF and by association SAPS (SA Police Service) have been part of and both should have drawn on experience gained in over two decades of internal operations and disaster response operations.

“In addition to experience in internal operations including border safeguarding, the SANDF has experience in continental peace missions. These operations require skills, attitude and determination to work with people, to communicate clear and convincing messages, to reach out and ‘win hearts and minds’. Thousands of SANDF men and women served in UN and AU missions.

“From the onset of the pandemic lockdown the SANDF had a well of experience to draw from. Mention must be made of SANDF members, junior and mid-level leadership who drew on these lessons. There is, sadly, evidence a few were carried away by misleading, unfortunate and inappropriate statements from some of the leadership corps who inadvertently encouraged deviance.

“It would be fair to assume the strategic appreciation would entail determining most appropriate strategy and the ideal concept of operations. All would be informed by established and tested SANDF doctrine including ‘Operations Other Than War’ (OOTW). Immediately the directive was issued there should have been a realisation that to win this campaign, the SANDF would have to be a proponent not of enforcement but strategically a proponent of inducement and cultivation of compliance and consent by the people.

“Going beyond the conceptual operation’s framework, one would suggest human resources, equipment and selected military facilities should be placed at the disposal of national authorities for utilisation as an extension of the national and other capabilities mobilised to fight the spread of coronavirus pandemic.

“In this regard certain national defence force bases and facilities should be identified and made available to supplement national capacity in the event of worst case scenarios. These can be utilised to provide support to nearby testing centres, specialised quarantine areas, designated COVID-19 emergency hospitals and specialised state mortuaries.

“Coming back to human capital, the most valuable service military personnel can perform is to serve as extension of the national medical and health work force. To this end the military would have to be subjected to COVID-19 mission readiness training by the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) before deployment. It should be foreseen the military would assist, among others, with conduct of coronavirus pre-screening services, undertaking support functions, placing cordons, including providing priority escorts in conjunction with the police, metropolitan police and other services, rather than provision of patrols and protection.

“A logical question is: What types of threat or threats that impede police from executing their law enforcement functions to the extent this warrants the SANDF acting as active protection and even enforcement role?

“The national coronavirus pandemic campaign is reaching a critical phase for the SANDF and, possibly, for all security services. There is an imperative for a rethink and review of what is to be done.

“For example, closure of public places due to high coronavirus infections could see the military perform fumigation services creating an environment conducive for speedy return to normal public life, instead of overbearing military patrols in the streets on high alert with high velocity rifles.

“The military can also serve as COVID-19 prevention foot soldiers in rural areas and townships conducting awareness campaigns to foster a new COVID-19 lifestyle and demonstrating how to prevent the spread of the virus. This would encourage participation in efforts to control and prevent the spread of the pandemic.

“A mobilised population can be an active pillar in the campaign to defeat the pandemic. People convinced and part of the cause will take personal and collective responsibility and ownership in this fight for survival. Never mind what some say, soldiers earned respect and admiration due to demonstrable capacity and skills in working among people even in faraway countries.

“All the above call into question the concept of the military operation as it currently stands on the one hand and on the other hand, calls for a departure from the current concept of operation.

“The call is for formulation and introduction of a new concept of operation relevant and adding value to the fight against the spread of coronavirus.

“My last take is any mission will have legal issues as is the case with coronavirus. What is unbelievable is the impression created that no appropriate disciplinary measures were taken in the wake of the Alexandra murder case involving soldiers.  Should the High Court make a judgement before military authorities act? The Defence Act and the Military Disciplinary Code regulate proper conduct of the national defence force on and or off duty with defined disciplinary measures. If the SANDF did not do anything, it owes the South African public answers, because this is inconceivable and unacceptable for a defence in a democracy.

“Overall SANDF soldiers are always there to advance the constitutional mandate, but it does seem there is a serious requirement for appropriate strategic guidance and a renewal of the civil military relations framework.”

Sibango’s final posting in the SANDF was as Chief of Staff at the Joint Operations Division in a military career spanning 39 years.