All Systems Go for New Submarine Museum
The SA Navy submarine SAS Assegaai, decommissioned almost two years ago, will continue serving her country as the main attraction at a planned museum of submarine technology.
"We want to preserve the proud submarine heritage of South Africa. This submarine museum will be the first in Africa," said Rear Admiral Arne Soderlund, former director of fleet force preparation.
Soderlund, an avid military historian and one of the driving forces behind the new museum, said a group of ex-submariners and navy people were spurred into action when the Assegaai's sister submarine, the SAS Spear, was sold and cut up for scrap.
"We got very excited and even tried to bid for the next one and stop it being sold, but finding a site was a problem... we spoke to the navy who agreed to freeze the sub and not part with it."
The SAS Assegaai, formerly the SAS Johanna van der Merwe, was one of three Daphne class submarines acquired from France during 1970 to 1972, and which became the first and so far the only submarines to serve in the South African Navy.
The three boats made up the submarine flotilla and were extensively refitted to maintain operational effectiveness and seaworthiness, with at least one submarine participating in clandestine operations during the Angola conflict in the 1970s.
Soderlund said the plan was to place a prefabricated quay on an existing slipway in the historical naval West yard, and float the submarine, which was currently on a synchrolift, across to the quay using a 30 metre barge.
"We will have an entrance and exit at either end to allow visitors the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a submarine at close quarters. The whole idea is that the past has to be relevant to be preserved... we will target children, with interactive classrooms part of a living, educational museum."
He said elements of mathematics and science would be combined in the displays, hopefully leading to more knowledgeable students and enthusiastic potential submariners, who nowadays needed to be skilled artisans, not just able seamen.
This was the case with the crews training for the navy's new submarines, a German-built Class 209 Type 1400 MOD diesel-electronic submarine acquired as part of the multi-billion rand arms deal.
Soderlund said the site would be in the immediate vicinity of the Simon's Town museum as well as the existing Navy museum facilities.
Importantly, an independent environmental impact assessment conducted was positive, taking into consideration various factors, such as the impact the quay would have on the tides and sealife, as well as if there were any historical artefacts that needed to be dredged up.
"We have done our homework. The project must obviously also be self-sustaining."
Soderlund said funding the project remained a priority, with an estimated R2.5m to R4m needed before the museum was finalised sometime next year.
He said a prominent black businessman, who wanted to remain anonymous at this stage, had indicated a willingness to invest capital and ensure that the project come to fruition.
The Naval Board at defence headquarters also recently approved the preservation project, leaving the fundraising to the submarine preservation group.
Another obstacle was for the existing Navy museum to be officially declared a museum by government, thereby unblocking the industrial capacity of the navy, who, for example, would then be able to use its own manpower to help preserve the submarine.
The hull of the remaining SAS Umkhonto will be used to provide items for submarine escape training facilities, and the rest probably be sold to be cut up for scrap.
"I will refuse to see it or photographs of it being cut up. It's like seeing a member of your family being cut up on the autopsy table," said former submarine commander Peter Keene, himself part of the preservation project.
Keene said over the 30-odd years of service, approximately 1 000 men passed through the submarines, and "each one left a large part of their lives on those boats".
He said the proposed museum would help remind South Africans of its rich maritime tradition, and of the role played by submariners, who by virtue of the work they did, were often not in the public eye.
With acknowledgements to Wendell Roelf and Sapa.