William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

SA’s politicians crash and burn on Armed Forces Day

Armed Forces Day this past Monday was marked by what the media described as a “spectacular” show, including a large fly past that included four Gripens, four Hawks, three C-130s and several Oryx helicopters, as well as the Silver Falcons “in tight formation”.

In other words, the South African Air Force (SAAF), which has been reduced to operating mainly as a flying limousine service for African National Congress politicians, has likely blown its entire flying budget for the coming year. And the United States embassy, which ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe last week said meets daily to “advance regime change” in SA, will no doubt have taken note that the fuel tanks are running on empty.

Because military operating budgets have been stripped to the bone, almost half of the SAAF’s 26 Gripens were mothballed three years ago. Most of the SAAF’s 30-strong light helicopter fleet is grounded because of the “almost total lack of flying-hour allocation”, according to the authoritative Defenceweb site.

This has also affected flying hours and pilot training, so that the SAAF reportedly can muster barely a handful of qualified Gripen pilots. A couple of years ago, three of the SAAF VIP-flight pilots lost their international ratings through lack of flight time, while another 13 were unable to travel to the US, which used to pick up the tab for them doing their currency ratings on flight simulators, because the SAAF couldn’t afford the air tickets and accommodation costs.

Fortunately, Jacob Zuma has fine friends in faraway places. SAAF pilots are now training in Cuba and Russia, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula explained this week in the National Chamber of Provinces.

“We have a problem,” she admitted. “Sometimes these young people train and they run short of flying hours before they can get their wings. We can’t give them those flying hours because there are no aircraft”.



The reason the SAAF did not have the necessary aircraft, said Mapisa-Nqakula, was because they had all been stolen by exiting pilots. “I tell you that some of the aircraft were taken by some of the people who left the [SAAF] and they belong to them in their museum … so when you talk about shortages it has to do with the fact that some of the assets were stolen.”

Does politics get more surreal than this? In SA, sure it does. Economic Freedom Fighters representative Leigh-Ann Mathys was outraged at this first-hand evidence of racist colonialist settler plunder.

“We must bring our stolen stuff back. If people stole our equipment we must go and get it back. Just like our land.”

Maybe Mathys is right. In the heyday of British imperialism, faced with such heinous provocation, the call would have gone out, “Send a gunboat!” In this, the dawn of the ANC’s national democratic revolution, the call must be, “Send a submarine!”

The SA Navy has four, although the number that are actually seaworthy fluctuates, depending on mishaps such as unintended encounters with the seabed and the inadvertent frazzling of the vessel’s electronics by plugging into the wrong harbourside socket.

As a naval commander explained in a television interview to commemorate Armed Forces Day, these submarines are damn useful things to have. The interview has since gone viral, but for all the wrong reasons.

Firstly, said the commander, SA is the only one of the Southern African Development Community countries to have such vessels. Secondly, the advantage that had to be communicated “to people on the ground to make them understand why we need submarines” is sharks. Yup, sharks.

“Can we take the risk of people going to where the river or sea is full of sharks? You can’t do that. The submarines provide deterrence,” he explained.

As Mantashe well understands, SA is under desperate threat. From within, it’s the Great Satan’s local embassy, subverting the cream of the nation through ostensibly innocuous student exchange programmes. Then offshore, there are the sharks, both metaphorical and real, in SA’s coastal waters.

Our aircraft are either in mothballs or museums, or ferrying President Zuma to Nkandla. Our pilots are either in Cuba or have resigned to join commercial airliners. So the skies, too, are obviously vulnerable.

On the ground, things are probably just as bad. Our soldiers are either on strike or marching on the Union Buildings. And think of all those tanks that have been purloined to stand guard outside MOTH clubs.

Surely the opportunity is ripe for another multibillion-rand arms deal.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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  • SAAF: From fighting force to flying farce