Daily Dispatch

SA Defence Force far from fighting fit

- Sikonathi Mantshants­ha

The expensive inaugurati­on ceremony for President Cyril Ramaphosa was a well-planned event designed to send a message that SA is back in business. It was meant to draw a line under the disastrous decade of betrayal under Jacob Zuma, to restore national pride and serve as a call to action. This may have been partly achieved.

Sitting in the crowd, watching our men and women in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) salute their commander-in-chief in front of dignitarie­s, it was easy to be overcome with pride at their impeccable display of profession­alism in the heat.

The diversity of the aircraft that roared over our heads, from the state-of-the-art Gripen fighter jets to the Hawk fighter trainer to the much older C-130 Hercules carrier aircraft, was impressive.

For me, the Rooivalk attack helicopter remains a special machine – it should be the pride of the nation and one of our premium foreign exchange earners. This is the only military aircraft SA can claim to have built and

equipped. It is a mean machine that has seen active service in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was crucial in neutralisi­ng the M23 rebels in the east of the country six years ago. It is a pity that only 12 were ever built, at a cost of $1bn (about R14.7bn).

A properly equipped defence force, accompanie­d by the right expenditur­e on research and developmen­t (R&D), could be a catalyst for scientific and industrial innovation in SA to help solve non-military problems.

While the weekend’s show of strength from the defence force was impressive, it revealed a lot that needs urgent attention in our armed forces. It was hard not to notice, for a start, that many of those taking part in the drill were overweight and unfit, their bellies straining against their uniforms.

Not to mention the number of them who seemed way too old for active duty.

I noticed three of the soldiers succumbed to the heat and dropped to the ground while standing at attention for about two hours.

Some of the first-aid officers rushing to the rescue of the stricken soldiers were also overweight.

Nor was it better when you looked up. Five of the jets roaring over the stadium were piloted by retired soldiers.

So, if the air force cannot mobilise pilots on active duty for a parade, how would it cope when faced with a need to scramble jets to fight invading aircraft? Could we rely on retired pilots to police the skies and patrol the oceans?

Military expenditur­e has been reduced in real terms each year since 2001, while more peacekeepi­ng duties have been imposed on the SANDF.

The result of the slashed budgets and expanded responsibi­lity brought us tragedies in the Central African Republic and Lesotho.

We need an armed force, even if it’s more a vehicle for peacekeepi­ng and R&D than a deterrent for war. But we can’t allow the SANDF to become a retirement home or an employment agency for those who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

If those who participat­ed in Ramaphosa’s inaugurati­on are a representa­tive sample of the troops in service, we’re far from fighting fit.

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