Soldiers died ‘protecting our heritage’

Pretoria - Just more than a week after the memorial service for the 13 soldiers killed in the Central African Republic, the SANDF said farewell to five more of its men.

A memorial service was held at Waterkloof Air Force Base on Thursday for the five officers who died in a helicopter crash while on a scheduled aerial patrol in the Kruger Park as part of Operation Rhino.

A relative of one of the soldiers who died during an anti-poaching patrol weeps at the memorial service. Picture: Phill Magakoe. Credit: Pretoria News

The Augusta A109 light-utility helicopter crashed at about 7pm on Saturday, March 30, killing all five occupants.

The men were: Captain Jacobus Andries van Rensburg (Special Forces); Captain Mziayifani Philemon Chabalala (Air Force); Sergeant Gene Paul Ruiters (Air Force); Sergeant Paulus Shongela Ndishishi (Special Forces); and Lance-Corporal Bheki Petros Cele (Military Health Services).

The Star earlier reported that Chabalala was the pilot and Ruiters the flight engineer.

Hundreds of members of the SANDF attended the service, in full uniform, alongside the families of the deceased.

Colonel Steven Maluma, the commander of Operation Rhino, said the SANDF felt the families’ pain.

“Poachers are killing our heritage. They are taking what is rightfully ours.”

Velile Chabalala, who spoke on behalf of the bereaved, said all five members had been committed to their profession and to eradicating rhino poaching.

Thabang Makwetla, the deputy minister of defence, attended the service to “pay respects to the families”.

He said the soldiers had lain down their lives to protect the interests of the country.

Edna Molewa, the minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, also attended.

The accident was the third military aircraft crash in four months, and the fourth Augusta A109 to crash in South Africa since 2009. The cause of the accident is being investigated.

The soldiers’ families were not available for comment.