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SAAF chief bows out

Date: 1 October 2020

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Lieutenant General Fabian Zimpande Msimang has officially retired as the Chief of the South African Air Force (SAAF), with a parade and flypast held at Air Force Base Swartkop on Wednesday afternoon to mark the end of his eight years in office as the head of the airborne arm of the SANDF.

Msimang retired because he is 60 years old, which is the mandatory retirement age in the SANDF, and his appointment date was 1 October 2012.

The ‘retreat parade’ at AFB Swartkop began with the Chief flying in in a SAAF Museum Alouette III helicopter – Msimang indicated he would in retirement fly with the SAAF Museum and join the Reserve Force.

This was followed by a flypast of almost every type of aircraft in SAAF service along with Museum aircraft, starting with the Vampire. More than a dozen helicopters then flew over dozens of assembled guests, including Oryx, A109, Rooivalk, Lynx, Puma and Alouette II. These were followed by Museum Cessna 185, Bosbok and Kudu light aircraft, four Harvards, a mass formation of light transport aircraft (five Caravans, two King Airs and a PC-12), a C-47TP and C212, two C-130 Hercules transports flanked by four PC-7 trainers, and then the fast jets: two Gripens and four Hawks.

After march pasts by the Guard of Honour and the SAAF band, a Gripen closed off the ceremony with a flare launch.

In an emotional speech during the reception afterwards, Msimang thanked the “awesome” members of the SAAF who enabled him to do his work properly. “I would go to war with you any time,” he said.

“I’m talking about people who I really care for, people who have meant a great deal for me, people who have done exceptionally well turning the impossible to the possible…I’d like to mention our technicians, with the support of Armscor; today we can proudly say that we have successfully serviced for the first time on our air base BBJ, Falcon 50, which is happening right now, the Oryxes, the Caravans that you saw flying, and many others. These are dedicated men and women who are not appreciated sufficiently by people outside. People who break their backs to make sure that aviation safety is not compromised, standards are not dropped.”

Msimang also mentioned that the Air Force last week welcomed the return of young pilots and technicians from training in Cuba. “These students were part of an exchange programme, started in 2014, that aimed at skilling our youth….I’m proud of these members who have flown that flag of the South Africa Air Force high…Today we also have members of the South African Air Force who are in Russia who will be returning next year.”

Transformation has been one of Msimang’s priorities during his tenure as SAAF Chief and he said, “We managed to put forward placements for extremely talented and brilliant minds who have attended their expertise to making this an Air Force that inspires confidence. I am glad to see so many more African faces in command positions…I am proud to see the vision that so many of our comrades who have fought for this country finally materialising. I am, however, saddened by the limitations placed on me to fully achieve the vision of transformation. I was unable to restructure the Air Force in such a way that gave spotlight to many brilliant women. I was limited in many ways to create a culture of strategic and timeous staffing,” he said.

Regarding challenges, Msimang said that policies and plans need to be put into action otherwise they just remain pieces of paper sitting on desks and said that underfunding is also a major issue. He stated that there needs to be better alignment, discussions and collaboration between members at senior levels, the parliamentary oversight committees and the commanders of the various arms of service. “Attempts to procure more strategic assets have resulted in a pile of documents languishing on a desk somewhere, unsigned. The cyber security course in Hoedspruit was terminated and to date we still hope it will be approved.”

Looking towards the future, Msimang said the SANDF needs to be agile enough to deal with its mandated tasks and new challenges such as hybrid warfare, transnational crime, climate change, cyber warfare and peace support operations. “I foresee…a force that can work with its regional, continental and international partners to form coalitions or partnerships to lead to greater internal and external security. As usual, there are unsigned documents that speak to this as the current plan is not effective.” Another ‘unsigned document’ relates to improved oversight of air movements in and out of South Africa as “additional and tighter regulations of the air space is a must.”

“The Defence Force is not just a bunch of members running with guns,” Msimang said, as it is called on to assist with disaster relief, firefighting and many other duties, with the COVID-19 response being one example. “The defence force was called upon to assist on many fronts and I believe this defence force can do even more. It just needs your support, the support of the South African people.”

Msimang touched on some of the personal challenges he faced during his career, during which his name at times was “sadly thrown around painfully. But of course with the support of the members that have been around me, we’ve managed to put the record straight.”

He asked the audience what makes a man leave South Africa during apartheid to train in Angola, Russia, and Italy. “What makes the Commander return home to be demoted and subjected to pure racism under the guise of integration and yet turn away lucrative job offers and stay the course? What makes the demoted man work his way up again, tirelessly, to the head of the Air Force, to face stiff opposition from all quarters. What makes that man continue regardless, in the interests of the people that he serves and the people that he loves? What makes that man stand before you today to say thank you all for your relentless work in bringing many of my visions to life? What could it be if you were not there? What could it be that makes a man, an exile, a terrorist, a commander, a freedom fighter, a dedicated soldier, and a person that smiles through it all? What could it be if not a patriot, and love of the soil?”

Msimang thanked the members of the SAAF for his retreat parade, noting that the change of command parade for his replacement is still coming. He said that as per tradition, as the Chief steps down the Deputy takes charge; in this case Major General Mzayifani Buthelezi.

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