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Cape Town - A shocking 11 recruits have died at the Oudtshoorn infantry school in the past three years - a death rate even higher than that at Guantanamo Bay, the notorious US military prison in Cuba where authorities have long been accused of torture and abuse.
Three of the deaths were the result of suicides, it has emerged, amidst allegations that soldiers are burnt with cigarette lighters, that women recruits are kicked by male instructors, and that pregnant soldiers are humiliated by superiors.
In the seven years before mid-2010, a further five recruits had died, according to documents presented to members of Parliament’s defence oversight committee during a recent visit to the military base.
SA National Defence Union spokesman Pikkie Greeff said: “More soldiers have died in that base (in the past three years) than prisoners have died in Guantanamo Bay over the same period.”
The Oudtshoorn base has long been plagued by reports of abuse, with the most recent incident involving a soldier who allegedly froze to death while on guard duty earlier this month.
Western Cape police spokeswoman Captain Bernadine Steyn said this week that samples from the autopsy were still being analysed for a report.
Meanwhile, military ombudsman General Themba Matanzima has produced a preliminary report on instruction by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to investigate allegations of abuse.
He said a final report would be ready in the next few weeks, but he expected the minister to ask him to launch another investigation covering the previous three years to “deal with the backlog”.
According to a briefing document given to MPs, Mapisa-Nqakula was forced to order further investigations because the unit’s own boards of inquiry had been unable to conduct “quality and conclusive investigations”.
Mapisa-Nqakula’s spokesman, Siphiwe Dlamini, said it was the minister’s right to ask the military to “dig deeper” if she wasn’t satisfied.
But he said each death had to be dealt with on a “case-by-case” basis.
“We can’t just say because it has happened in Oudtshoorn there is a special problem.”
The preliminary ombudsman’s report had been sent to the chief of the SANDF for action.
DA spokesman on defence David Maynier said he was “deeply concerned” and called for Matanzima’s report to be completed as soon as possible.
This comes after the mother of a soldier stationed in Oudtshoorn wrote a letter to the defence union complaining of conditions.
The union said one of the pregnant women allegedly humiliated by her superiors had committed suicide. But this had been denied by the SANDF.
The union also said a recruit had been hospitalised “with a prognosis of permanent injury to his shoulder after being beaten with broomsticks during a punitive physical exercise”.
The union has alleged that the training session was halted earlier this year because medics feared the recruits would die. Several reportedly required medical treatment, and all their cellphones were confiscated to prevent the leaking of pictures.
The total death toll for the past 10 years has risen to 16. The three suicides all occurred between 2011 and last year.
Greeff said the commanding officers had created “a culture of fear… everybody’s just too damn scared to do anything”.
He said no one had ever been held accountable for the deaths.
Fatalities since 2003
* May 2003: Lance-Corporal TN Mbonjana dies after being overcome by gas heater smoke in his room.
* July 2007: Death of Lance Corporal PM Nxumalo. No cause of death is given.
* 2008: death of Lieutenant NS Msani. No cause of death given.
* November 2009: Corporal TD Malitisa is accidentally shot by a fellow soldier during crowd control training.
* April 2010: Recruit FC Makhubele dies in his sleep of natural causes.
* September 2010: Recruit EN Biyela is absent without leave when he dies in a taxi accident.
* 2011: Recruit WI Rampai dies from “acute follicular tonsillitis”.
* April 2011: Rifleman MT Thekiso dies of a heart attack.
* June 2011: Able Seaman FV Maluleke dies while crossing a river during training.
* July 2011: Staff Sergeant HJJ van Stryp complains of pain in the side while abseiling, and later dies “due to natural causes”.
* August 2011: Recruit MJ Khethupilwe shoots himself.
* November 2011: Lance-Corporal S Ntozini dies of heat stroke on a route march during recce selection.
* December 2011: Lance Corporal CG Nxangashe hangs himself in his room.
* 2012: Recruit EC Bruintjies collapses in a queue while waiting to do a pregnancy test. The cause of death is given as a “cardiological complication”.
* July 2012: Recruit NR Ngcobo shoots herself.
(The list of fatalities at the base between 2003 and last year is contained in documents presented to members of Parliament’s defence oversight committee during a recent visit there.)