Soldiers killed in Lohatla accident hailed as heroes

The nine South African soldiers killed during a military training exercise at Lohatla base were on Wednesday hailed as heroes and heroines during a memorial service in Kimberley.

Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said that the five men and four women had fallen in defence of South Africa’s hard-won democracy.

”We have lost a part of ourselves in the Department of Defence,” Lekota said.

The minister said the department honoured the contribution the nine had made to ensure the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was combat-ready to defend democratic freedom in Africa.

Lekota referred to the role the SANDF played in Africa and said he was humbled by young men and women who joined the force voluntarily to create better conditions for all in South Africa and its neighbours. ”They will defend this in any way possible …”

The families of eight of the victims were flown in from Waterkloof air base in Pretoria with various senior military staff from SANDF headquarters.

SANDF spokesperson Major Lize Jansen van Rensburg said the families were financially helped to travel to Pretoria. ”Some came from Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng.”

The memorial service was led by Chaplain General Werner Cornelissen of the SANDF at the Alexanderfontein church.

Lekota told the victims’ families the reasons for the accident were still unknown, adding that he was sorry. He again expressed the Department of Defence’s condolences with the families and said they would be assisted to work through the trauma. ”You are not alone in your grief. When you join the army, you belong not only to your family, but [also] to the country.”

The accident at the Lohatlha training grounds happened immediately after technicians had finished repairing a Mark V twin-barrelled 35mm gun. A burst of explosive shells, lasting one-eighth of a second, from the barrel of the anti-aircraft gun killed nine soldiers and injured 15 others.

Last week Wednesday, Lekota said that a military board of inquiry into the accident had started its work.

”As a further assurance to the public, we [the SANDF] do not want to see a repetition of what happened,” said Lekota after visiting troops injured in the accident.

Lekota said the board of inquiry was led by a retired officer, Major General Johan Jooste, who was an experienced soldier and not ”beholden” to anybody. ”He would not be shy to point out mistakes where there were. We need this kind of investigation so that no mistake is covered up, and to eliminate all weaknesses, if any.” — Sapa

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