Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2003-10-15 Reporter: Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

Negotiating Waves of Change in SA's Two Navies


Business Day

Date 2003-10-15


Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

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The chief of the South African Navy, vice-admiral Johan Retief, says he is heading two navies, one old and one new. On his watch, he is overseeing the greatest technology leap since the formation of the navy and its racial transformation. He admits that both challenges have been very tough.

By the end of the decade, the recently purchased four corvettes and three submarines will be operating. Also by this time, the navy aims to reflect the racial make-up of the population. That is when the objectives of the new navy will be met.

Retief is charged with its creation but will not be present to celebrate its birth. He became navy chief nearly three years ago, and has another three to serve before compulsory retirement at the age of 60.

He has served in the navy for almost 40 years and his career has taken him from antisubmarine warfare, overseeing the acquisition of strike craft in the 1970s, and serving as military secretary to former defence ministers Magnus Malan and Roelf Meyer. He also served as inspector-general of the defence force and the defence department.

There is a lot of work to be done before the new navy is launched. The fast-ageing fleet of strike craft and a submarine will soon be sold for scrap. Then, the new fleet will require training of personnel and equipping.

And then there is the continuing task of racial transformation, which Retief readily admits has been "traumatic". That is because any change in the way things are done can be difficult, he says.

But the navy has come a long way since the early 1990s, Retief says. "Racial incidents are now treated as learning opportunities rather than the beginning of a trial or a witch hunt."

He believes that the navy should have about R250m more in its budget to do the job at hand .

In African terms, even with the old fleet, SA is a naval power, albeit one that is somewhat hobbled. While SA will certainly not be a major regional naval power of the likes of India or Brazil, it will certainly be an enhanced power with ships that can operate at long distances from home ports.

The new corvettes will raise SA's ability to control open stretches of sea. With its on-board helicopters, one corvette can control 10 times the area of the navy's old strike craft. As no other navy in the world has the type of corvettes SA has purchased, Retief sees a lot of uncharted water ahead. "We will have to learn from our mistakes," he says. On the combat suite for the corvettes, which has been at the centre of allegations of corruption in the arms deal, Retief's reply is quick: "We are getting more than we bargained for."

The submarines, considered by some critics of the arms package as unnecessary, are absolutely essential, Retief argues. The ability to deny the enemy passage at sea is vital. They will provide "the cheapest deterrent you can buy", he says.

With the navy's drastic contraction of personnel from 15000 in 1990 to its present 6500 it lost a great deal of technical expertise . But Retief says the navy is retaining technicians through generous incentive bonuses .

There are signs that the navy could play a growing role in peacekeeping. It recently flew three patrol craft to Burundi, where t he navy will patrol Lake Tanganyika, one of Burundi's boundaries with the Democratic Republic of Congo, from where Hutu rebel s are thought to operate.

With acknowledgements to Jonathan Katzenellenbogen and the Business Day.