Our Soldiers Need You.

2013-10-25 08:51

"People who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country deserve considerable respect."- unknown

In my travels as an Able Seaman in the South African Navy Band I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to the USA for the 2011 Virginia International Tattoo. What was very surprising to me was how the American public viewed their soldiers and sailors. Even the foreign forces that were present were treated like heroes. Many of them posed for photographs, even putting their head gear on little children, who also wanted to join the army when they grew up. When I got back after the two week trip, I started to wonder why it is that the South African Public didn't see me/us in the same way?

At the time, having only learnt about certain aspects of apartheid, I didn't really draw any conclusions. It was only much later, after becoming politically aware, so to speak, and working in an SANDF which had a variety of soldiers from all different backgrounds, that I realised the damage that had been done to the SANDF, and which resulted in a very negative public perception, thanks to apartheid.

The SANDF was formed in 1994 by integrating all the then statutory and non-statutory forces.

The statutory forces were the SADF, Bophuthatswana Defence Force (BDF), Ciskei Defence Force (CDF), Transkei Defence Force (TDF) and the Venda Defence Force (VDF). Khoisan people were used in Police units such as Koevoet.  They, just like the soldiers of 32 Battalion, were however never integrated into the SANDF. Sadly, the black soldiers of Buffalo Battalion at Pomfret have been totally forgotten and neglected.

The non-statutory forces were Umkhonto we Sizwe (ANC), People's Liberation Army (PAC) and the Self-Protection Units (IFP) and others.

This integration caused an exodus of white officers, NCOs and soldiers  who were not prepared to serve alongside soldiers who were, for many years, regarded as "the enemy ".

I am told by many of the men I served with, and who were part of the older defence forces and liberation armies, that trust was extremely difficult. Many ex SADF soldiers, black and white, still believe today that they are either stagnant in their rank or treated badly by the current predominantly MK command, because, if they had been part of the statutory forces, they were viewed as traitors/enemy and puppets who had sided with the apartheid government.

One ex MK soldier I often spoke to, was still a private (at almost 60 year of age) and hadn't received rank since 1994. He had been an instructor to many ex MK generals such as Shoke and Masondo. It is his firm belief that he has been held back all these years because he was their instructor and was hard on them. Members of the old IFP Defence Units are still given a hard time today. They were never given permanent contracts, because the ex MK generals do not recognise them as liberation fighters. (Note: for those of you who don't know the history, there were severe clashes between IFP and ANC supporters in the 80s and early 90s. It is, therefore, understandable that those old tensions still exist and are a problem in the modern day SANDF.)

The public, of course, is made up of civilians who supported both non statutory and statutory forces. I believe that their views are just as diverse as the SANDF. I know that there are many South Africans who look at our defence force today and think "it's not even half of what it used to be. They should have never allowed blacks in. The blacks destroyed it all". On the other side of the fence, there are those who think "they should never have allowed those traitors in. They didn't fight for freedom. They trained with the enemy!" and so on. I've heard many different and opposing opinions over the years, which is understandable.

The new generation of recruits are very different. I did basic training with my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, we sweated together, starved together, got nailed on the parade ground together and, most importantly, we got along fine ... well, mostly.

Despite all the damage that had been done, I can assure you that the soldiers of our defence force (both old and new) wake up every morning with only one purpose in mind, and that is to defend you! They wake up very early to be at work at 07:30. They always make sure that both their uniforms and their personal appearance are exemplary.  Remember, they volunteered to do this job. Nobody forced them and nor were they conscripted to join the military. Moreover, they do this for bad pay and crappy treatment by some in management who do not realise that, without them, there would not be a defence force.

Do you realise that right now there are groups of soldiers living in the bush, fighting rhino poaching, sailors in the middle of the ocean,  fighting piracy and UN contributed soldiers fighting to stabilise countries like Sudan, Burundi and the DRC? They were sent to "train" forces in the CAR. Many have died, and many are still going to die, fighting for a better Africa and a better South Africa. Let's show a little support for a change. If you see a soldier, sailor or airman, tell them you're proud of what they do. Don't make comments such as "oh. but he/she's fat for a soldier". They could very well be a chef, logistical support, musician or HR that never see combat, and never will. My point is that they joined to serve and it definitely wasn't for the money, that I can promise you.

Back our troops. Ask questions. Write to your MPs and tell them about what you see and think. Write letters to the newspapers about how neat a group of soldiers are. They need your support. Maybe, just maybe, you will see a difference in their general demeanour. Yes, there are bad apples. I know this because I deal with them all the time, but the majority are good, hardworking men and women, just like you and me. They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They are all South Africans.

I'm happy to say that I have seen an increase in support of late. Matters such as CAR, the DRC and Guptagate have sparked a new interest in the SANDF and many are standing squarely behind our brave soldiers. I think it's just great! I'd love to see it more often.

And, I shall end this week's post with a quote from the Art of War, a book that can be applied to every aspect of life:

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

?Sun Tzu

Well, at least that's how I see it. Thanks for reading.

You can follow me on twitter @tim_meh87 and please share this article on Face Book. Also, the SANDU's revamped website is now "live" at www.sandu.co.za

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