South African media have met the new Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Vusumuzi (Vusi) Masondo at his first briefing for all media, which was characterised by the general openly admitting problems, but giving little in the way of specifics.
General Masondo was promoted to Chief of the Army following the promotion of Lieutenant General Solly Shoke to Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) about a year ago. Speaking at the Army College in Thaba Tshwane, Pretoria, Masondo said one reason he had waited this long to hold a formal briefing for the media was his visits to units throughout South Africa. He said:
“Over the past few months I have traversed the length and breadth of this country, visiting our units and have just completed this programme. This has been of great significance to me and my team, where we were exposed to first hand information into the current status of the SA Army.”
Masondo went on to speak of “facilities that are dilapidated” and “the declining state of defence infrastructure” as challenges to the members of the Army. He went on to mention the soldiers who had rioted at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in August, 2009 and said the soldiers were being “informed of the outcome of their conduct”. Military unions have played a major role in the matter, after the soldiers were, in effect, thrown out of the army by the then Defence Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu. Courts have since forced the Army to deal according to a different process with the rioting soldiers. A new Grievance Procedure was in place, Masondo said, expressing his hope that this would be a way forward in disputes between soldiers and the Army.
Colonel Sydney Zeeman introduces the Chief of the Army.
Other difficulties the Army faced were lack of sufficient manpower as well as an ageing fleet of vehicles, including the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (pioneered by South Africa, and ancestor of the Mine Protected Anti Personnel) vehicle or MRAP, currently used in Afghanistan by US and NATO forces.
Members of the media and the army at the media breakfast.
Besides the bad news, General Masondo pointed to a decrease in illegal immigrants coming into South Africa, which has become a major social issue, as well as successes scored in countering rhino poaching. Unfortunately, he did not have specific numbers, whereas the numbers mentioned by news reports of rhinos killed were depressingly high. This follows the deployment of 11 infantry companies (about 1,300 soldiers) to the country’s borders in a phased deployment of “Operation Corona”.
Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga, Director, Defence Corporate Communications, fields a question from the media.
He also referred to the Army’s Engineer Corps which has:
“Constructed a number of bridges where communities have found it difficult to cross rivers during rainy seasons. This has happened in the Eastern Cape where we constructed three bridges for different communities.”
Digital Journal asked how many companies were currently operating in various African countries. Masondo said:
“In terms of our external deployments, we are required by the UN to provide a battalion to the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Sudan and the size of that battalion is about 850 men.
Of course you know that we have had some challenges, in the Sudan, where there have been problems in the granting of visas to our soldiers and also in hampering the rotation of our equipment.
In the DRC, there was a stage where we were faced with disciplinary problems of our members, but it is encouraging to know that that situation is improving and recently when I visited the DRC I had the occasion to meet the force commander there who himself confirmed that there is a lot of improvement there in terms of the discipline of soldiers.”
The “challenges” in the DRC Masondo referred to were in some cases very serious and included rape, as well as the more common military problems of disorderly conduct. It is to be hoped that the new Chief of the Army succeeds in stamping out all such disciplinary problems.
The picture of the South African Army was a mixed one, of a force facing financial and personnel problems, as well as equipment replacement and upgrade needs, but which had a strong cadre of officers who would likely deal with the challenges.
South Africa is an important player in Southern Africa and Africa as a whole, being both a democracy and an industrialised country, albeit still developing. In terms of equipment and training, South Africa can match most African nations in a military context, and now that this force is turned to peaceful objects, can do much to uplift the continent.