Laugh at the SANDF as much as you want, at least we fix our Mabenas
Veterans will tell you humour is often the best coping mechanism to deal with situations that are quite unlike anything people in the civilian world will have to deal with.
Not many civilians will have to run with their buddies over their shoulders while carrying their own bags.
Not many civilians will have had to move in lockstep with their colleagues; even fewer will have to drive anything bigger than a suburban runaround - or if they are particularly privileged, a Sandton tractor - a luxury SUV that can clear a 15cm kerb.
It’s a lot different in the SANDF. Marching in step is commensurately more difficult the more people there are on parade. It’s tough enough doing it with 30, the average size of a platoon, but it’s a beast of a different nature when several thousand people - all from different arms of service - do it through a city centre.
It’s the same with our training runs. We train to carry each other over our shoulders. It’s immensely difficult and demanding, especially when you are wearing a helmet, carrying your assault weapon and wearing your battle jacket - and your friend has exactly the same kit - but that’s what you need to be able to do. When you come under enemy fire and one of you gets hit, the other one has to get them to safety.
You’ve got to be able to run at shoulder-height walls and clear them.
Normal people aren’t expected to do that, just like that they’re not expected to be able to drive huge armoured vehicles with massive turrets off road and over obstacles at high speed. It’s hard enough doing it with a bakkie that weighs less than a ton on a dirt road.
A Rooikat weighs 28 tons, yet it can travel up to 120km/h on the open road and 60km/h through the bush. It takes immense skill to drive it.
Last month, during a practice run the day before Armed Forces Capability Day on February 18, which is held the same week as Armed Forces Day (February 21), an SANDF Rooikat crested a high embankment at speed, before turning left sharply at the Roodewal weapons range outside Polokwane.
It crashed into a perimeter chain fence where spectators would have been sitting, but was brought to an emergency stop well before the seating area.
No one was injured in the incident. The only damage was a mangled chain link fence. The footage, though, was dramatic - as you’d expect from a high-speed, high-tech weapon of war.
The video of the incident was shared far and wide, with much ribald and derisory commentary about the allegedly hopeless state of our national defence force and referencing the hapless “Mabena”.
Mabena has become a social media meme; a real soldier who drew the ire of his instructor during a video last year of the buddy-carrying exercise. It then became a catch-all phrase to describe any other mistake made by a SANDF member afterwards.
You can laugh as much as you want, but we all have our own Mabenas. Nobody thinks about the driving skill it took to bring that Rooikat under control - the same skill we could do with on our public roads if the horrific civilian accident rate is anything to go by.
But then again, nobody comments on the actual Capability Day, which went off without a hitch when the Defence Force showed its battle skills thorough a series of live fire and simulated combat exercises.
Nobody shares the videos either of the impeccable timing and excellent drill of the all arms parade, drawing soldiers, sailors, medics and air force personnel through the streets of Polokwane on Armed Forces Day 2020.
There are other videos circulating on social media showing the SANDF doing incredible work, including daring helicopter rescues of injured climbers in the perilous Drakensberg Mountains, or out on the high seas off our coast.
These aren’t shared far and wide, because videos that purport to embarrass are always far more popular than their opposite - which says a lot, sadly, about the state of mind of those who post them.
The SANDF is the pride of this nation; our members certainly serve with pride and we put our backs into training and practicing under the toughest conditions we can simulate so we will be ready when the moment comes.
No one talks about that, because we are only doing what you expect of us. When we train, we expect to make mistakes so we can learn from them. That’s what training is about; in the military we train hard to fight easy.
Civilians can’t - and shouldn’t have to - understand this; we don’t expect them to. They can laugh too, but that’s because we put our lives on the line to give them that privilege.
The bottom line is, we know who our Mabenas are - and we fix them. The question is whether the rest of South Africa knows who theirs are?
* Siphiwe Dlamini is head of communications: Department of Defence.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.