The importance of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as an instrument of government has been highlighted, sadly, on the debit side of the ledger, by Deputy Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Thabang Makwetla.
“Over a period of four months we have lost close to 30 members of our defence force in the course of executing their duties,” he told a memorial service for five SANDF members who died when a helicopter crashed in the Kruger National Park earlier this month.
Three of those who died were members of 5 Special Forces Regiment in Phalaborwa and the remaining two were from the South African Air Force’s 15 Squadron in Durban.
Makwetla said all five were on duty as part of the national Operation Rhino anti-poaching effort. They died when an Agusta A109 light utility helicopter crashed.
“The soldiers we are honouring distinguished themselves through dedicated, disciplined and efficient execution of their duties in the preservation of our precious national heritage,” he said during the memorial service at 28 Squadron, AFB Waterkloof.
The SANDF has been involved in anti-poaching efforts in Kruger since March 2011 in addition to its primary function of border protection.
The Kruger Park deaths come hard on the heels of the 13 deaths in the Central African Republic (CAR). Many media commentators subsequently pointed out the arrival of 13 bodybags at the SAAF’s major transport base had brought home to South Africans exactly what the hardships and dangers faced by soldiers, either on continental or internal deployment, are.
Eleven SANDF members died in December when a C-47TP Dakota crashed in the Drakensberg en route to Umtata and a Navy sailor was killed in a demolition accident at Touws River, also in December.
With more taskings facing it, including protection of the massive Benguela Current and its various ecosystems, the SANDF will be even further stretched. This follows the signature of a trilateral agreement between South Africa, Angola and Namibia on protection of the east African coast current, acknowledged as home to one of the world’s largest marine ecosystems in terms of food supply as well as a source of minerals and energy. Another maritime task waiting in the not too distant future is surveillance of the Prince Edward islands group in the Southern Ocean. This area was proclaimed a marine protected one by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa earlier this month.
At the time of the Benguela Current agreement signing, military analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman said the new commitment “will add to the headaches of an over-stretched and under-funded defence force”.
The ever-growing work roster of the SANDF is putting more and more strain on the organisation, a point acknowledged by South African Air Force Deputy Chief Major General Jerry Malinga. Speaking ahead of Air Force Day in February he said “financial and other resource constraints had not prevented the SAAF from successfully completing each and every task assigned to it.”
He also warned “inadequate funding” would hamper maintenance and development in the airborne arm of the SANDF.
South Africa has committed itself to the new UN intervention brigade set to take on the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the SANDF will not release details as to the size of its involvement for security reasons, this will increase the workload of the uniformed public service.
In terms of border protection, the SANDF has indicated two more companies, with the necessary support elements, will be deployed on border protection in the coming financial year. The deployment will be on the Botswana and Namibia borders.
Navy Chief Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu has also warned his arm of service continues to face the same challenges – insufficient financial operating budget and a shortage of trained personnel – in the immediate future.