Major Mandisa Nomcebo Mfeka, the first African female fighter pilot. Picture: Jacoline Schoonees GCIS

Johannesburg - A quarter of a century ago four generals saluted their brand-new commander-in-chief as Nelson Mandela took to the podium to be inaugurated as South Africa’s first president in the democratic era. It was a moment of deep symbolism that reverberated around the world.

The generals were white, the president was black, once former foes they were all South Africans though, sworn to uphold the sovereignty of this nation.

Today, the SANDF doesn’t just reflect the society it serves it also breaks the glass ceiling of stereotypes creating opportunities for all, irrespective of their class, creed, colour or gender. South African women serve in the military, not in the pigeon holes of prejudice of before but anywhere they qualify.

Last Saturday Major Mandisa Mfeka took to the skies over Loftus Versfeld as South Africa’s first black female fighter pilot, while Major Nandi Zama, the first black woman commander of a Hercules C130 flew behind as the nation watched the inauguration of South Africa’s fifth president and our commander-in-chief, Cyril Ramaphosa.

We have women flying our world renowned and locally made Rooivalk attack helicopters. Lieutenant Colonel Catherine Constable, as she is today, became the first female Gripen fighter pilot in the world almost 10 years ago. We have female chaplains, women command front line infantry battalions, qualify as paratroopers, and most recently, in what is probably if not a world first then certainly a conquering of the last bastion of male privilege, we have a fully qualified and serving female submarine officer in the South African Navy.

The South African National Defence Force was forged from the amalgamation of the old apartheid South African Defence Force, the defence forces of the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and the Ciskei and the liberation armies of uMkhonto we Sizwe and Apla.

Today, 25 years later, it has written its own history and blazed its own course through Africa, not as a warmonger, but as a peacekeeper – bringing stability to people exhausted by bloodshed and carnage. Its first major success was Burundi, as its first C-I-C, now retired, worked tirelessly to bring peace to the Great Lakes Region. The United Nations would create a special peacekeeping force, dubbed Onub, which also became the first to be commanded by a South African, Major General Derrick Mgwebi. 

Mgwebi, who is now retired, had a distinguished local career first as General Officer Commanding special forces before becoming chief of joint operations. He would lead UN soldiers again 2015, when he was appointed commander of Monusco, the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world at 20 000 soldiers based in the Congo. Monusco also has the only UN peace enforcement unit – the Force Intervention Brigade – which the only UN force mandated to engage in military offensives against enemies. The current commander of this unit is also a South African; Brigadier General Patrick Dube.

South Africa is the 11th highest contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in Africa and the 17th largest contributor in the world, but it keeps the peace for the African Union and the Southern African Development Community too, notably in Lesotho in 1998. The SANDF has been involved in 14 peace missions since 1999 in countries as diverse as Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Comoros, Sudan and Uganda, Liberia, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic – where our paratroopers and special forces operators fought like lions, earning the respect of friend and foe alike for all time.

We have a vested interested in keeping the peace and nurturing democracy in Africa, it’s an important structure of government to ensure our foreign policy is understood. The peace and stability we enjoy in South Africa is meaningless if there is no peace elsewhere on the continent, which we see in the influx of economic and political refugees.

The SANDF also safeguards our territorial sovereignty through Operation Corona, walking patrols along all 4 471 kms of them; from the Atlantic in the west with Namibia, all the way across Botswana and Zimbabwe, down past Mozambique and around eSwatini ensuring a 10 km deep cordon, combating poachers, apprehending and checking undocumented persons stopping car syndicates from smuggling stolen vehicles out of the country or criminals trying to bring in contraband, counterfeit goods, alcohol and drugs into South Africa.

What we are doing on the borders is to ensure that the people of South Africa are not just protected but that that our economy is too. The more prosperous our country is, the healthier the economy, the greater the opportunity for a better life for all who live in it.  But that’s not all the SANDF does, our soldiers, our sailors, our military health professionals and our air force personnel also get involved during humanitarian disasters; most notably in 2000 during the Mozambican floods literally plucking hundreds of people out of trees from our helicopters.

We went in again this year after Tropical Cyclone Idai and we are currently in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal after the ravages of the storms that hit the coast, displacing thousands and killing scores. We have gone down to help, to provide emergency medical care and shelter, while our engineers sort out the disruption in water supplies.

Last year, the president asked us to step in and prevent a looming humanitarian crisis along the Vaal River system in both Gauteng and the Free State because of the imminent collapse of the municipal sewerage system

This is a national defence force that has proved its worth over and over in the last 25 years. It has remained resolutely committed to its constitutional mandate of protecting this nation and serving the people, not politicians, while bringing great honour to South Africa and instilling pride through the conduct of its members at home and abroad. It has performed every task it had been asked to, with skill and commitment – against an economic environment that has become as much an enemy as any faceless foe.

The SANDF runs Operation Broekskeur, which means literally operating by the skin of our teeth – our generals and our admirals have to work with what they have. Even then, we still need money to fix the barracks that we expect our soldiers to live in when they are not in the field. Roofs that do not leak, windows that are not broken, drains that aren’t overflowing with sewage are not excessive expectations. There is a fundamental mismatch between the funds we get and the expectations our country’s leaders - and the continent’s - have on us.

As we celebrate our 25th anniversary of proud service to this young country, it’s high time that we fixed it – so that we can continue and improve that which we do – for all of you.

* Siphiwe Dlamini is head of communications for the Department of Defence.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.