Sombre first days in office for Minister Motshekga

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Just days after being sworn in as South Africa’s minister of defence and military veterans in the country’s seventh democratic administration last Wednesday, Angie Motshekga had to hear of the deaths of four soldiers and extend condolences to the families of two officers killed in a continental rebel mortar attack.

The four soldiers, according to an SA National Defence Force (SANDF) statement attributed to Department of Defence (DoD) Head of Communication (HoC) Siphiwe Dlamini, were on guard duty at a disused mine shaft in the Orkney area of the North West province. Their presence and that of other soldiers nationally to support police attempting to curb illegal mining is as per an Operation Prosper tasking, codenamed Operation Vala Umgodi by the SA Police Service (SAPS).

The soldiers, with the names of their units not given and an assurance their names will be made known once families have been informed, were on a 24 hour shift [presumably Friday into Saturday] at 3 Shaft of an unnamed mine. Their bodies were found in a “container structure” (presumably a 20 foot shipping container) used as a guard house. They were discovered by their relief reporting for duty on Saturday (6 July).

Police were notified, with inspection of the container confirming all four were dead with rifles and personal items not removed. A North West district surgeon was summoned and examination revealed no potentially life-threatening injuries. Preliminary findings by a SAPS forensic science laboratory (FSL) team from Pretoria have carbon monoxide poisoning as the most probable cause of death. This is ascribed by the Dlamini statement to “a possible fire made during the cold night inside the container structure”.

As is SAPS standard operating procedure (SOP) when deaths are reported, an inquest will follow. The bodies are now at the State Mortuary in Klerksdorp for “further investigation and post-mortem”.

As always with the deaths of military personnel, condolences are extended to the families of the dead soldiers with the Orkney deaths the first for the new ministerial triumvirate now at the helm of the DoD – Motshekga and her deputies Bantu Holomisa and Richard Mkhungo. As is rote, condolences also come from SANDF Chief, Genera, Rudzani Maphwanya and Acting Secretary for Defence, Dr Thobekile Gamede.

Not 24 hours later, on Sunday 7 June Minister Motshekga attended the funeral of one of two officers killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during a rebel mortar attack on a SAMIDRC (Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC) base at Sake on 25 June. A South African Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans (MoDMV) statement does not disclose the location of Captain Lucky Maringa’s funeral, saying only it took place at the same time as that of the other soldier, also a captain by the name of Rebaone Kgopane, in Taung, North West Province. One was on the personnel strength of the SA Army 46 SA Brigade Headquarters and the other an air defence artillery specialist.

The statement has Motshekga saying: “I cannot, even as a Minister, in anything I say today diminish the impact of losing soldiers all at once. We still cannot help ask why. Why do we have to lose such good men? Part of the answer is, only good men like those who volunteer to serve and defend their country. We are not alone in mere personal grief, or our desire to honour the fallen. The presence of the SANDF officers here is their effort to acknowledge the sacrifice and the bravery of Captain Maringa”.

“The death of Captain Maringa and all other SANDF officers who are deployed in conflict areas on the continent cannot be in vain. It is in fact a much clearer indication that efforts to realise a peaceful Africa and the world must be accelerated.”

She told those present South Africa “has participated in more than 15 peace missions since 1994”.

“South Africa,” she said, “is an integral part of these including United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) missions in among others, Lesotho, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, DRC, Sudan, the Comoros and Liberia. South Africa recognises that its security, prosperity and sustainability and that of the rest of the African continent are inextricably connected”.