Bonfires lighten up the sky. Dark clouds of smoke hang over the city. Soldiers fire canons and jets thunder trough the air. The sun glows mercilessly and burns the faces of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of spectators. It is the middle of February in Port Elizabeth: the South African military is celebrating itself. It is an event for the people to honour the members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). An event where the military shoots everything it has to offer up into the air. It is an event to forget all the problems the military struggles with on a daily basis: an acute lack of money, the aging of the military staff and one of the highest HIV/AIDS-rates in the whole country.
Even weeks before the event people are getting excited. The very first thing a taxi driver tells as early as January is that he is really keen to finally visit the submarines, to see jets fly and to watch the soldiers’ drilling together with his son. Not only will the community members be able to see how much power the military has: everything is also free of charge and therefore open and affordable for anyone. So of course the taxi driver was at the event’s kick-off on Saturday the 13th, when seven Navy ships arrived at the harbour, including the SAS Drakensberg, the biggest ship ever built in South Africa, the SAS Umhloti, a minehunter and the SAS Queen Modjadji, one of the first real submersible submarines, named after the Rain-Queen, the queen of the Balobedu-clan, the people of the Limpopo Province.
It is very obvious what one of the event’s main aims is: To show a military that is approachable and that invites especially young people to join its troopes. That is why the ships can be visited free of charge every day. Furthermore, during the following days the military offers daily activities like free concerts of the five SANDF bands or sport activities like rugby, football, volleyball, cricket and netball. In particular the latter addresses kids, so that even they become fascinated with the military from a very early age and gain the impression of how much fun they could have with their companions if they join the forces. The military wants to impress. There are loudspeaker all over the city telling people mantra-like, over and over again that the SANDF with its newest equipment und technology plays an important part in the continuity and defence of the great Republic of South Africa as well in the protection of the people. These sentences are hammered into the visitor’s heads.
One of the most visited attractions is the exhibition centre on one of the city’s most beautiful beaches, open on five days during the celebrations. Where usually sandcastles are stringed together, their builders are now standing with their hands over their ears while jets are flying over their heads and their fathers are screaming “Where are the bombs?”. Soldiers are passing their helmets to the smallest ones and heave them in their helicopters, putting them in good light for a picture. Weapon fanatics orbit the exposed radar systems, panzer and artillery canons. The air is full of smoke and sound. It is loud. It is hot. It is crowded. There are just a few parking spaces left, no options to buy a drink or a snack and the streets heading to the beach are blocked. The people are happy.
Some of the events are sticking out: It is Thursday afternoon and the best seats in the cafes are already occupied and will not be cleared until the night. With the sun sinking slowly towards the horizon, the three kilometre long beach is filling with more and more camping seats, barbecue grills and binoculars. The Navy has announced a night shooting demonstration. Even hours before the shooting starts the best places on the beach are taken. Latecomers have to be satisfied with places in the back rows. People are sitting on blankets, balustrades and bonnets looking towards the sky full of excitement: Finally the first jet fighters are flying over the horizon and start dropping flares. These countermeasure ammunitions, which would divert heat-seeking missiles in a battle, leave tracks in the sky that resemble fireworks. The sky and the ocean are illuminated. What follows makes every firework look tame and lame. Canons shoot small parachutes with magnesium into the air to illuminate the scene. Suddenly even some ships can be seen in the night, during the next twenty minutes firing shots towards the sea. Growling thunder rumbles through the nightly sky. Dogs curl up under parking cars. Fog lights are simulating when ships are hit. C-130 Cargo planes, Oryx helicopters and Rooivalk helicopters can hardly be heard until their sounds get lost completely in the loud bang of an exploding firewall at the end of the pier.
The crowd hails and applauds the demonstration, the power of arms. “These bombs give me goosebumps! One of the most amazing things I have ever experienced”, people still rave about it the next day standing in the queue at the supermarket. Here it is not a problem of course when soldiers go for a walk in full uniform, including their automatic guns and helmets during the next days. They smile in every cell phone on a stick held in front of their faces. South Africans are proud of their military and their role in Africa. The troops took part in different peace operations for example the operation Blue Hungwe in Zimbabwe or international missions like the invasion of Lesotho or Missions in the Democratic Republic Congo.
For many the military mirrors a society as it should be
Many people can identify with the military because in it they see the reflection of a society like it should be: with an equal distribution of all population groups through all levels and ranks, without a white dominated administrative level. But there are still traces of apartheid especially taking form in crimes between black and white officers. The crime rate in the SANDF is not particularly low. 265 employees of the defence ministry were convicted of different crimes in 2013. In the SANDF alone there were 500 criminal convictions of military members because of crimes like theft or murder from 2011 to 2014. In addition, 421 soldiers were sentenced by military courts during this time. Victims are employees of the military as well as civilians. However the people’s trust in their military and soldiers seems not to be shaken by these alarming numbers. On the contrary: During the military week the police holds an official meeting, where the people beg for the army to be present in their neighbourhood while the police minister has to listen to complaints about a lack of police plus dozens of unsolved murders. Three days later the police minister promises a visible army mission in the following weeks. Just in time for the coming council elections.
People´s pride in the military is based on the history of the last 21 years. While there was a compulsory military service for white men until 1993, the military in its present form is the result of the first free elections after apartheid. The compulsory military service was abolished and a professional army built. Today the armed forces consist of the different military branches of the South African Defence Force, the former counterparties like Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the ANC, the Self Protection Unit and the Inkhata Freedom Party, and the troops of several former homelands. Were there initially only white persons in the highest levels, members of the former underground and revolutionary forces assumed posts in them as well. The transformation of the old apartheid SADF to the new SANDF is societal forward moving, something that in other areas of life is still missing. Still, the merger of the different militaries did not go without problems: different moral views bumped together, which in combination with the dissimilar personal and technical standards made it even harder to function. Discipline is a never-ending problem. Even today, after several integration and training programs, which should have resulted in an unification, the military suffers the after-effects. The defence minister for example recently complained about missing training aeroplanes. The lack was caused by theft of equipment and even whole planes by former military members. Subsequently, the pilots in training have to go to Cuba or Russia for their flying lessons.
Given the size of the event in Port Elizabeth it is not surprising that the people join the parades with enthusiasm, place their kids on rocket launchers and take pictures of themselves with soldiers. They even welcome the harshly criticized president and commander in chief Jacob Zuma with applause and a flag ceremony. Some people, like the harbour manager even believe, that the military’s visit and especially the navy’s visit will play an important roll in realizing the government´s operation Phakisa. This initiative focusses on monitoring and protecting the sea and shall help to establish an economic growth in the maritime sector. It nurtured the people´s hope for new jobs in the harbour town Port Elizabeth.
Applaus for a controversial president
The event’s highlight is not the president’s visit but the demonstration of the military’s capabilities in a so-called “mini war”. It is the biggest demonstration of its kind since the end of apartheid and entices masses of spectators to King´s Beach, a beach with blue flag status, situated in the bay and surrounded by restaurants. Behind the 1.6 kilometre long sand beach the harbour can be seen – from there normally catamarans start their tours to the penguin island and huge carrier ships transport Volkswagen cars to destinations all over the world. Today the crowd is watching a simulated anti-piracy-mission, including paramilitary troopes, who jump from a C-130 military plane to capture a ship. Ships burn and helicopters circulate over the beach and the sea during the whole operation. One helicopter brings seven soldiers, hanging on a rope below the helicopter, to the shore, where they immediately take up their position. Others are brought in by boats. Near the shore they throw themselves into the water and wade towards the beach and their comrades, weapons ready to shoot. The scenery switches from a rescue operation to fighting action. Bullets are flying. Jets simulate rocket launches. They fly over the crowded beach and “give fire”. Behind the soldiers, parts of the beach explode, giant fireballs appear that are so tremendous that they leave columns of smoke rising hundreds of meters into the sky. Much higher than the security distance to the watching crowd at the nearest barrier.
One encounters not much criticism these days. It amounts to nothing more than a little group of protesters. They walk singing through the streets. “Corruption destroys freedom” is written on their t-shirts. Connected with the purchase of new submarines and ships allegations of bribery and corruption have recently arisen in South Africa. Instead of noticing the protesters, young soldiers recite the advantages of joining the military even louder: the good payment, the social security and three meals a day. Though the military suffers of the old-age-syndrome: It is the oldest in the world and – like every democracy – has huge recruiting problems. The deposition of white officers after apartheid entailed the disadvantage of loosing important knowledge. There are still not enough young and well-trained people to cover that loss. Another big problem is the high HIV/AIDS infection rate within the military. While the official number for the whole population is 18 % between the age of 15 and 49, the infection rate for the military is allegedly 25 %. Independent researchers are even talking of an infection rate of 40 % and base this number on the much higher death rate in comparison to the alleged infection rate. The high number of infections has significant effects on the military´s efficiency. Money, urgently needed for training equipment, has to be spent on health care. Lost working days because of HIV/AIDS are estimated at 400,000 a year. The training is affected by cancellations, postponements of sessions or replacement by unqualified teachers. It seems impossible to contain these problems. In fact they are increasing since the high court has decided in 2009 that an infection can not be a (non-) recruitment criterion anymore. So not only the medical but also the educational level is decreasing since most recruits have serious personal problems or difficult social backgrounds e.g. being AIDS orphans, in addition often without proper education. At the same time the military desperately needs well-trained soldiers to prevent the loss of lives or equipment caused by a maloperation or faulty maintenance and repair. Increasing costs are also the result of the high HIV infection rate, not only because of health care but also necessary retraining: Since HIV infected soldiers are not allowed to work in the field to prevent disease transmission, they have to be transferred to and re-educated in other jobs. As a result, the imbalance gets even worse. Many soldiers refuse to take part in combat operations or to serve abroad. However, the government’s expenses are decreasing steadily. The budget gaps are pressing to such an extend that the military is even reclaiming planes, stolen 20 years ago – equipment that is outdated and was most probably not maintained even once ever since.
None of this is spoken about during the festivities. It will probably be the same next year during the anniversary of the SS Mendis sinking. The SS Menid was a transport ship converted to a troopship during the First World War. It sank 1917 in a thick fog eleven miles off the English Isle of Wight. More than 600 South African crew members and soldiers lost their lives. The tragedy left such a big a mark in South Africa that memorials were built all over the country. In Port Elizabeth president Zuma put a wreath down at the Mendi Memorial in memory of the deceased. And with the approaching anniversary next year the willingness to talk about the problems the military is facing, will most likely be lower than ever.