Lieutenant-General Solly Shoke salutes at an earlier medal parade at army headquarters. Picture: Etienne Creux

His credentials as a former Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) commander made Lieutenant-General Solly Shoke an obvious choice to head the SANDF and military experts and unionists agree he was the right choice too.

President Jacob Zuma has announced that Shoke, the former head of the army, would replace General Nhlanhla Ngwenya, who was appointed ambassador to Angola earlier this year. Shoke assumes the post on June 1.

Unions say senior staff are sitting at home doing nothing, and a scathing report to Parliament has painted a picture of a defence force buckling under budget cuts and questionable leadership.

“He knows he doesn’t know everything, but he has an ability to listen to his colonels for their input and expertise,” said Helmoed Heitman, a South African military analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly. “That’s important because we’ve had too many guys who think they know everything and that’s a real problem.”

In a statement yesterday, the SA Security Forces Union (Sasfu) congratulated Shoke, but said it hoped he would act differently from his performance as army chief, by “prioritising the transformation of the SANDF”.

Shoke was chief of the army at the time that several thousand soldiers staged a mass demonstration on the lawns of the Union Buildings demanding better working and living conditions.

“We call upon the general to clean up his top staff and make sure that they are not involved in personal businesses, to prioritise the work of defending the nation,” said Sasfu president Bhenkinkosi Mvovo.

“The general must investigate why many senior ranking generals and admirals are sitting at home but being paid huge salaries every month.”

Mvovo said he hoped the new SANDF head would release the findings of a board of inquiry into the deaths of nine soldiers at Lohatlha in 2007, when an anti-aircraft gun malfunctioned.

He also asked that another inquiry be instituted into the death of a petty officer, who they claim died because of an abuse of power.

Shoke was born in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg in 1956. He received his basic military training in Angola and served in various capacities in the MK, among them as a member of the Underground Leadership Collective (Operation Vula) and commander of the Transvaal Machinery.

In 1998, he was the mission commander for the South African Development Community (SADC) intervention in Lesotho where 700 SANDF troops maintained order in the country after allegedly fraudulent elections resulted in rioting.

In his role as chief of the army, Shoke made the right promotions even if they had been politically incorrect, Heitman said.

Shoke’s new job does not come without challenges. The defence budget has shrunk each of the last two years. In a scathing report to Parliament last November, the Interim Defence Force Service Commission criticised the SANDF its lack of soldier discipline and poor working conditions.

“These are problems that can’t be solved overnight, but with the right budget and continued political backing, he can do it,” Heitman said. - Pretoria News