Air force racial rift report surfaces after 14 years

Members of the South African Air Force during a Parade in 2010. Picture: SA Air Force
Members of the South African Air Force during a Parade in 2010. Picture: SA Air Force

The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) has been sitting on a damning report that flagged racial polarisation and discrimination in the SA Air Force, including the “humiliation of black student pilots” by the instructors.

The internal report, concluded in 2004, makes findings including that officials at the Central Flight School (CFS) at Air Force Base Langebaanweg, Cape Town, had “not yet embraced cultural diversity and the principles of transformation”.

SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi confirmed last week that the air force received the 2004 report in June this year – 14 years after it was drafted.

“[The air force] continues to make significant strides to address racial imbalances and other concerns raised, particularly the Air Force Base Langebaanweg matter,” he said.

SANDF did not explain why the report is only surfacing 14 years later.

Among the recommendations in the report had been that “cultural diversity and cross-cultural communication courses should be a prerequisite for instructor qualification”.

“[The courses] should also be presented at CFS on a regular basis to instructors, trainee instructors and pupils,” read the report, signed by Major General MMM Mangethe on August 29 2004.

An analysis of the planned flying programme showed that black pupils had on average 4.5 sorties – flight training trips – less than their white counterparts.

“The large gap in the number of sorties completed between white and black students could not be explained by the [head of] CFS or his staff,” Mangethe said.

In the original complaint, dated July 2004 and signed by 11 of the 13 student authors, “white instructors” are accused of threatening black students daily and picking on them when they make mistakes, but acting more leniently when their white counterparts make similar mistakes.

“Another incident is where a white female student pilot had failed the quiz and all of us were ordered to rewrite so that she could also pass.

“On the other hand, when a black student [fails] a quiz we do not do a rewrite as a class [and] only the member who failed suffers the consequences of being taken to the validation committee, which is one step towards the wash-out criterion.

“In this school, we blacks are always threatened to be taken off course while our fellow white colleagues are just cruising through the course until they get their wings.

"It is because of such reasons that we realised that apartheid is still prevailing at the CFS,” the students wrote.

They questioned whether South Africans were “paying their tax money to train only white students to become pilots in the air force, while black students are taken off the programme in every semester using apartheid strategies”.

“Is this what Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki and others fought for?

"Must we still have such people in our system under the leadership of our democratic government, which is trying so hard to balance the equation of the past so that we the new generation can take this to the next level of non-racism?”

Mangethe heard testimonies that a student was “warned by other black air force members that he must not expect to succeed as it was practice at the CFS not to allow more blacks than whites to receive wings”.

“The traditional practice of mock rituals and ceremonies intended by the practitioners to build esprit de corps at the CFS are insensitive and humiliating to black members.”

An instructor “admitted that he humiliated four black students in front of the other students, [stating] that he was using a shock tactic to drive home safety concerns”.

Mangethe found that “the instructors are unable to deal with the past and embrace the future” and were also “in a state of denial on the existence of problems at the CFS”.

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