Publication: Sunday Argus Issued: Date: 2002-07-14 Reporter: Jean Le May Editor:

Too Fat To Fight


Publication  Sunday Argus
Date 2002-07-14
Reporter Jean Le May


More than half of South Africa's soldiers are medically unfit and the National Defence Force faces a "serious crisis" that could expose the country to huge risk in an emergency.

A picture of ageing, overweight soldiers with equipment in a deplorable state has emerged from information given to the parliamentary portfolio committee on defence at a briefing by the department of defence.

The army could not deploy more than half its 76 000 soldiers on operations because they were medically unfit, the department admitted.

And several independent reports reaching Sunday Argus indicate that up to 60% of SA soldiers could be HIV positive.

The committee was given this shocking assessment of the defence force's inadequacies at a recent two-day briefing at Saldanha military base.

The army, navy and air force tabled discussion documents and a large contingent of reservists attended the briefing. A brief prepared by the Centre for Conflict Resolution was also discussed.

The portfolio committee recommended that Defence Minister Mosioua Lekota take "immediate remedial action to stop further deterioration.

The committee chairman, Thandi Modise, said the minister would have to present a plan to the committee within three weeks.

The committee heard that : Out of its 76 000 troops, the defence force could deploy only one operational brigade of 3 000 men. It was "impossible" to deploy 19 regular army companies and 23 reserve platoons because of lack of funds. Training had virtually come to a stop, with troops sitting around in their bases doing nothing.

This probably contributed to the fact that many members of defence force were unfit and seriously overweight.

Almost all courses had stopped, leading to boredom and demoralisation. Army reserve forces had not been deployed on training exercises for close on four years. The morale of reservists was "at rock bottom" Equipment was in a deplorable state, with only four out of 168 Olifant tanks and eight Rooikant armoured cars out of 242 operational. Lack of funds caused a shortage of fuel that contributed to the lack of training and exercises.

In the air force, funds were allocated for only 2 400 flying hours instead of the 7 200 requested.

Pilots were resigning in droves because they flew so infrequently.

"The air force usually runs out of aviation fuel every September," said a member of the portfolio committee.

This has turned the defence force into "an armed welfare department", said Democratic Alliance portfolio committee member Hendrik Schmidt.

This gave a ratio of one general for every 293 men, compared with a general for every 2 000 men in the United States army.

Aids appears to be one of the biggest problems facing the defence force.

The army has estimated that the incidence of HIV among soldiers is 17% to 23%, but commentators agree that there is no real database on which to make estimates.

Soldiers are usually not tested for HIV unless they are being operationally deployed.

The portfolio committee was told that seven out of 10 deaths in the SA armed forces were Aids-related.

And a medical specialist at one of the country's military hospitals told Sunday Argus that six out of every 10 soldiers hospitalised tested HIV positive.

The doctor, who would not be named, described as "feasible" the allegation that 60% of soldiers were HIV positive.

Philip van Schalkwyk, DA spokesperson on intelligence and military veterans and a former army brigadier-general, said : "The army is not giving us the real situation. From my experience, I would not be surprised if the incidence was as high as 60%."

Department of Defence officials did not say why so many soldiers were medically unfit and army spokesmen approached by the Sunday Argus refused to elaborate on the situation.

The only explanation offered by the department to the portfolio committee was that many of the riflemen and infantrymen were between 32 and 36 which was, by army standards, too old for deployment on active service.

Roy Jankielsohn, the DA spokesman on defence and a member of the portfolio committee, said the usual age of a footsoldier was 18 to 22.

However, the army had stopped recruiting in 1994 when the liberation armies were integrated with the former defence force, resulting in an higher average age.

With acknowledgements to Jean Le May and The Sunday Argus.