SA's defence farce

Andrew Donaldson writes on the military's failing air conditioners, and Operation Mosi II


AN anguished cry from the depths of the swamp. It is my old friend Carl Niehaus. He is troubled. “What the heck is going on?” he tweets. “The wheels are falling off everywhere!”

The reason for the Radical Economic Transformation Movement leader’s distress? According to a recent TimesLive report, some 72 000 members of the South African National Defence Force may not be paid on time. “The safety and sovereignty of our country is being compromised,” Carl rails. “#cyrilramaphosa is an unmitigated disaster. He must just take his jacket and go!”

Rousing words. But, as we’re very well aware, Che Guava is notoriously sloppy when it comes to matters of reality. Some fact-checking is necessary before continuing. And as it turns out, it is not wheels falling off that have placed defence force salaries in jeopardy, at least not this time, but rather faulty air conditioning systems. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

According to an internal SANDF memo, these wheezing contraptions are required to cool down essential military computer servers. However, the AC systems have “once again” gone on the fritz, meaning the servers must be taken offline to prevent a system collapse due to overheating. 

Think of it as a load-shedding situation that is threatening the roll-out of salaries and processing of invoices. This is serious. We don’t want 72 000 unpaid soldiers. They may be forced to do something rash, like sell more of their side arms to criminal elements to make ends meet.

However, top military brass directed the computers to remain operational despite the chiller failure. This was a risky manoeuvre. Had the gamble failed and said servers self-combusted, the consequences would no doubt have been catastrophic: officers falling on swords, demotions all round, mutiny in the ranks, armoury stores raided, etc. But, to the relief of everyone, the ploy worked and SANDF members were paid on time. Our safety and sovereignty presumably remains uncompromised.

Or perhaps not. 

As I write, the SA Navy is mucking about in the Indian Ocean in a joint display of tub-thumping with the Russians and the Chinese. As many have pointed out, Operation Mosi II is a shameful business, taking place as it does on the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine thus handing the Kremlin a propaganda coup regarding its illegal war.

More worryingly, it allows the Russians an opportunity to field-test its new hypersonic Zircon cruise missiles. These weapons of mass destruction are apparently so fast they’re capable of flattening such strategic targets as apartment blocks, maternity wards and primary schools a full ten seconds before the launch button is pressed. 

Little wonder, then, that the ANC’s “neutral stance” on Putin’s war has resulted in anger and dismay among our bigger trading partners. Government’s dull-witted response to their concerns is not only contemptuous but suggests a blithe disregard for the inevitable diplomatic fallout. 

As an example of such idiocy, consider minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele’s comments last week: “It’s difficult for me to say which ministers will be [at Mosi II]. Let me tell you, if I was available, I would go. It’s quite an interesting scene, especially if different countries come together to do that exercise. It actually shows that the globe is able to live in harmony together and so on.”

Does Gungubele believe we’re all incredibly stupid? Or does he just have to make odd noises whenever a microphone is thrust in his face?

The media have meanwhile been barred from covering this farce, so we may in fact never know which ministers, if any, are out there at sea monitoring this “interesting scene”. 

Kobus Marais, the shadow defence minister, has condemned the lack of transparency and argued that the ANC is secretly assisting Moscow to prepare for further maritime strikes on Ukraine. “This,” the DA MP has said, “could make SA jointly liable for the attacks by the Russians, and then probably for war crimes.”

Another reason for the secrecy, Marais has hinted, could be that government is ashamed of their neglect of the armed forces and the fact that the SANDF is bankrupt. Maybe they fear the Russians and Chinese will fall about laughing when they notice the state of our ships. 

Then again, maybe the visitors believe these rusting hulks are to be used as targets in their exercises. This may seem all they’re good for, but in reality it’s not worth the bother. It is unlikely these superpower navies will ever have to square up to such lame ducks in a battle situation.

It is pleasing, meanwhile, that Cape Town’s mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, declared that one of the Russian warships was not welcome when it docked in the Mother City early last week. 

The mayor was reacting to the “official [Twitter account] of the Russian Consulate General in Cape Town!” which had posted a snap of the tub with Table Mountain in the background and the caption: “Cape Town hosts #Russian frigate ‘Admiral Gorshkov’. The battleship arrived in the Mother City on its way to Durban where it will take part in joint naval drills scheduled for February 17-27.”

“We are not hosting this warship,” Hill-Lewis tweeted in response, “nor is it welcome in the Mother City. Cape Town will not be complicit in Russia’s evil war.” And, of course, the customary hashtag: “#VoetsekRussianWarship” 

It may seem a small gesture. But in the context of Pretoria’s kowtowing to the Kremlin, it is louder than bombs. We owe the Russia of Vladimir Putin nothing, and the ANC should not be permitted to kiss their arses in our name.

The passing parade

The visitors will almost certainly be gobsmacked by the advanced age of our mariners. We possibly have the only navy in the world where the traditional risqué jokes about cabin boys are unknown — for the simple fact that such personnel are all veterans in their 50s.

(I just made that up. Strictly speaking, no-one really knows the age of these people.)

But, in this regard, when she was defence and military veterans minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula did once reveal some worrying figures. 

The average age, she said, of a full-time infantry soldier was 38. Broken down into ranks, the averages were: rifleman, 34; lance corporal, 44; corporal, 46; sergeant, 48; staff sergeant, 51; warrant officer (class one), 53; and warrant officer (class two), 55. The officers appeared to be a bit more spritely: second lieutenant, 33; lieutenant, 36; captain, 41; major, 46; and lieutenant-colonel, 50. 

That was in September 2020. They’re now all a bit longer in the tooth. Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), we imagine SANDF troops setting off in the not too distant future to defend our safety and sovereignty: Left … clunk! Right … clunk! Left … clunk! Right … clunk! … Which is the sound of the infirm marching with regulation-issue walkers — known more colloquially as (groan) Zuma frames…

Ailing, failing, sailing, etc

The UK’s National Health Service is in bad shape. Patients can’t get GP appointments, hospitals are understaffed, emergency units are in chaos, ambulance call-outs are severely delayed. Nurses may now have called off further industrial action, but thousands of junior British Medical Association doctors have voted overwhelmingly to walk off the job for 72 hours in early March. The healthcare crisis has consequences far beyond Britain’s shores.

What’s more, the NHS now has to contend with pirates from Perth. Exploiting a recent trade agreement, a Western Australia government delegation is on a recruiting drive here, hoping to lure almost 31 000 skilled workers to up sticks for Down Under. 

In addition to medical professionals, they want teachers, police officers and civil engineers. “Perhaps unsportingly,” The Times noted, “they are visiting during winter to offer better weather, higher wages and a lower cost of living.” 

The delegation is led by Paul Papalia, a government minister. “We are here to steal your workers,” he announced, “by offering them a better life in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Western Australia is a fantastic place to live and work. Our wages are higher and our cost of living is lower. Our health system is world-class. You will be taken care of.”

Punting Perth’s USP, Papalia said most residents lived a short drive from the sea, where parking was free. To drive home the point, The Times mocked up an image of the audibly tanned politician bothering a pair of kangaroos on an unspoilt beach. More compelling, though, was a table comparing average annual salaries:

Doctor: £133 772 (Western Australia), £73 560 (UK); 

Mining engineer: £95 679 (WA), £37 863 (UK); 

Civil engineer: £69 017 (WA), £38 171 (UK); 

Electrician: £63 798 (WA), £37 052 (UK); 

Secondary school teacher: £52 901 (WA), £33 567 (UK); 

Registered nurse: £49 217 (WA), £31 218 (UK); and 

Childcare worker: £33 357 (WA), £24 498 (UK).

By some coincidence, the very same edition of the newspaper features letters from readers in rapture about Oz’s medical services. This endorsement, for example, from a Warwickshire doctor: “Australian healthcare is facilitated by lack of hierarchy and easy familiarity. When I ran a hospital in the outback the patients addressed me as John. I called them all mate. The Sheilas loved it.” 

The egalitarian informality is admirable, though some situations, I suspect, may require a degree of solemnity. (“Bad news, mate. Yer heart’s stuffed. Here, have a tinny…”)

Meanwhile, and without fanfare, the UK health authorities’ own foreign recruitment programme continues. The exodus of European medical workers brought about by Brexit has resulted in a spike in broker agreements to lure African and Asian doctors and nurses with pay and working conditions that are far better than in their native countries (although perhaps not quite like Perth.)

Last year, Britain’s General Medical Council reported that the number of nurses from outside the European Union on the UK register rose from about 800 in 2012 to some 18 000 last year. According to Private Eye, some African health worker organisations have welcomed the recruitment of nurses despite the risk the exodus poses to healthcare in the countries where they were trained. 

“More than 700 nurses left Botswana for the UK last year after the Botswana Nurses Union reached an agreement with the UK-based recruiting agency NEU Professionals,” the magazine said. “A separate House of Commons report in 2021 reported that there are more health professionals of Ghanaian origin working for the NHS than in Ghana. It found that more than 3 000 had left Ghana for the UK in each of the previous three years.”

The situation is much the same with doctors. “Over the past three years,” Private Eye said, “nearly 35 per cent of doctors licensed to practice in the UK had obtained their qualifications overseas, including 1 719 from South Africa, 806 from Kenya, 4 192 from Zimbabwe and 8 241 from Nigeria.”

The ANC government insists it is going ahead with its national health insurance plans. This is despite dire warnings from opposition parties that the scheme is unaffordable and will destroy the country’s health sector. 

Consequently, more South African doctors and nurses are contemplating a move to the north. If they haven’t done so already, now’s the time to dust off CVs and polish up résumés. Get radical. Think of relocation as a form of industrial action…