A miracle in the military

Andrew Donaldson says not all our soldiers are ageing, at least one is getting younger


A CURIOUS item in City Press at the weekend: home affairs officials are investigating a senior military officer who has apparently grown four or five years younger while serving in the South African National Defence Force.

Brigadier General Vuyo Luke, inspector general of the SA Military Health Service, is 60 and due to retire in the next couple of days. However, it’s claimed that his identity number was changed nine years ago. According to his previous ID number, Luke should have retired in February 2020, but didn’t. He was thus able to continue drawing a salary, and accordingly be entitled to a larger military pension. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The newspaper’s sources state that, following this change, the SAMHS personnel department reported a case of suspected fraud and corruption with the military police. Home affairs records suggest that, according to his school records, Luke was born on 10 February 1959 and not on 10 February 1964 or 2 October 1960, as indicated on his previous IDs. This investigation went nowhere. 

Luke states that he unaware the issue had been investigated. As inspector general, though, it was perhaps his duty to investigate such irregularities in the SAMHS. His story however is that he had no ID documents when he went into exile and joined uMkhonto weSizwe. Upon his return to South Africa, and with MK’s integration into the SANDF, he was issued a new ID by home affairs. 

While he was aware this ID was “wrong”, he nevertheless used it to get on with his life, to open a bank account, apply for a home loan and so on. This “wrong” number was also listed on the SANDF’s official personnel database, but “corrected” on 25 February 2015. 

Usually such a change can only be made with the approval of higher authority. However, Luke authorised this change himself — an act, I presume, which led some jobsworth to raise the alarm in the first place.

As someone who could be more than four years older than Luke, or maybe several months younger, I fail to see the problem here. Provided senior officers can maintain an orderly desk, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to soldier on, as it were, pushing pens and stuff, well into their late sixties at least and perhaps even beyond that. 

As it is, life expectancy is increasing mostly everywhere, and it’s no surprise that governments around the world are reviewing state pension policies, rolling back qualifying ages. In the UK, for example, the state pension age is set to rise to 67 between 2026 and 2028, and 68 between 2044 and 2046. Luke, who could feasibly be  a young man by then, may still be of service to his country — although it’s perhaps for the best if he were kept away from maps and scissors.

Which brings us to a related and more serious matter: the SANDF on the whole is growing very tired and long in the tooth. It is, according to Thomas Mandrup, an expert in African security governance and SA military and foreign policy, “only at half its supposed strength”. 

In an interview with The Conversation ahead of the SANDF’s current and very problematic deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said the average age of our defence force personnel is 46, which he described as a “big operational challenge”.

“Active soldiers should be young and fit,” Mandrup added. “Ideally, the majority of the force [rifleman- or private-level] should be 25 or younger. Officers and non-commissioned officers will have a higher average age.”

It’s worth noting that, in September 2020, the then defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, told Parliament that the average age of the full-time SANDF infantry soldier was 38. She further broke down the average ages as follows: rifleman, 34; lance corporal, 44; corporal, 46; sergeant, 48; staff sergeant, 51; warrant officer (class one), 53; warrant officer (class two), 55; second lieutenant, 33; lieutenant, 36; captain, 41; major, 46; and lieutenant colonel, 50. 

This is frankly quite embarrassing. But in March 2022 it was claimed that the average age of the infantryman had come down slightly and was now 37. Perhaps the Luke effect is more widespread than the chaps in the personnel department realise.

Adding to the problems that come with too many birthdays is the fact that the SANDF is woefully underfunded, and has been so for a while. 

There is, according to Mandrup, a “discrepancy” between what Pretoria wants to the military to do, and the resources available for such tasks. He notes that government has increasingly used the SANDF in domestic security and policing roles, while also deploying troops and scarce equipment in “complex international peace missions” — including combat operations like the present one in which some 2 900 troops will be packed off to the DRC. 

At the time of writing, this operation had already claimed the lives of two men and wounded three others in a mortar attack on their base. I fear more casualties will follow as a result of the SANDF’s irrational and shortsighted entrance into this conflict.

There is considerable opinion on social media that the operation “is commercially motivated” and concerns the DRC’s mineral wealth — a claim that the SANDF has dismissed as “thumb suck” and “far from the truth”. Instead, and according to Cyril Ramaphosa, it is a deployment that is in line with “fulfilling South Africa’s international obligation” concerning a SADC mission to support the DRC.

Quite why this particular international obligation should trump the country’s other international obligations, like its legally binding commitment to the international criminal court, for example, remains a mystery. 

However, what we do know for certain is that Squirrel has dumped the SANDF into a very sticky mess — with little or no logistical support. The odds are heavily stacked against our troops. 

The SADC mission replaces the multinational East African Community Regional Force and is intended to assist the DRC’s security forces in their campaign against the M23 rebel group in the eastern part of the country. This conflict has been raging for two decades now, and every attempt thus far to neutralise the rebels has failed.

The M23 rebels, said to be backed by Rwanda, have operated in the region for many years. They are battle-hardened, know the terrain and, more importantly, are integrated with the local population.

Any force hoping to successfully engage with the rebels must therefore be sizeable, enjoy proper air cover for offensive operations and make use of air transport. So far, only about 250 SANDF troops have arrived in the DRC, and they have little or no such air support and must instead travel by land. The region’s road system is barely functional and will be difficult to use in the rainy season, which is now until the end of May. In addition, tactical and operational intelligence is vital and, it goes without saying, so is having loads of firepower.

What’s of most concern, though, is the lack of fighting experience. This is quite evident from the reported circumstances surrounding the mortar attack on the SANDF base near the town of Sake which killed Captain SM Bobe and Lance Corporal IT Semono, both of 1 SA Infantry Battalion. 

The attack is thought to be a test by the M23 rebels to gauge the striking power of the South African troops, a “typical” strategy, according to experienced former senior military commanders. One of them told Rapport

“A man in civilian clothing will come to the base, asking for a job. As he walks back, he’ll pace exactly the distance from the base to test the range of a mortar. If you don’t fire back immediately, a day later they fire a few more mortars at the same target.”

What’s now feared is that the lessons from the so-called Battle of Bangui, in Central African Republic, in March 2013 have been forgotten or completely ignored. Back then, a small SANDF training mission, which included a few hundred lightly armed special operations forces and paratroopers, clashed with some 7 000 fighters with the Séléka rebel alliance, in fierce battles in the CAR capital that lasted for two days.

Despite the overwhelming odds, and the lack of air cover, logistical support, heavy equipment or extraction possibilities, the SANDF troops fought with considerable bravery and it was testament to their skill that just 17 of them died in the fighting.

But the CAR mission was a failure. Séléka took control of the country and its leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president. Moreover, this cock-up demonstrated all too clearly the SANDF’s severe limitations when deployed thousands of kilometres away. 

And, as several commentators have noted, the military is now in a far worse shape than it was back in 2013. There is much to fear about this current folly. 

The mess in the DRC is none of our business and we should get out of there immediately.