/ 23 June 2011

‘Missing’ soldier found dead in his room — a month later

'missing' Soldier Found Dead In His Room A Month Later

A member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has died under mysterious circumstances at the Lenz military base, an incident that is likely to bring back the debate about the bad conditions South African soldiers live under and the negligent manner in which the military bases are managed.

Private MM Mkhwanazi’s naked body was found on Wednesday, a month after he went missing. It has not been determined when he died.

The Lenz military base south of Johannesburg was singled out by the Interim Defence Force Service Commission report, together with its sister base, Doornkop, as some of the areas that needed urgent attention by the defence force.

Mkhwanazi, a member of the 21 South African Infantry Battalion, had been mentally ill for “over five years”, according to his colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Members of the battalion were among soldiers who engaged in a protest action in August 2009, an incident that was regarded as an embarrassment to the nation.

‘Negative environment’
It was clear that the troops were “disillusioned, unhappy and demoralised by the negative environment,” said the commissioners at the time.

Sipho Swelinkomo, an official of the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) who was stationed at the Lenz military base until his suspension after the protest in 2009, told the M&G that the union had last year reached an agreement with the ministry of defence and military veterans, as well as the interim commission, that Mkhwanazi should be sent to a hospital or a place of safety.

The decision was not implemented. “We are blaming the commission and the minister, because they didn’t check if their instruction was carried out,” said Swelinkomo.

Mkhwanazi’s colleagues had been advocating for his discharge from the military because he was becoming a danger to himself and his colleagues, they said.

“The management knows about that man’s problem. We told them. We fought so much to get the management to help him and even told the commission when it visited the base,” said the soldier who alerted the M&G to the incident on Wednesday afternoon.

Unknown time of death
The soldier’s body was seen on Friday last week, but because his colleagues thought he was sleeping, Mkhwanazi was only discovered to have died on Wednesday evening. His fellow soldiers were unable to say when he might have died, as he went missing a month before his body, which was already decomposing, was found lying face down. Cellphone pictures of the dead body started circulating on Wednesday afternoon.

Asked why the defence force had not discharged the soldier on medical grounds when it became clear that he was struggling, defence spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini defended the SANDF. “We can’t get rid of people in the defence force because they are mentally ill. It’s as good as saying we should discharge people because they are disabled”.

The defence force was obliged to provide “medical treatment and support” to its ill members, said Dlamini. “The fact that he was seeing a psychologist and he was getting medical treatment says a lot.”

But colleagues at Lenz military base paint a different picture.

“The management just didn’t care. He would get treatment once in a while,” said one colleague who was at the scene when the body was found and had known Mkhwanazi for over a decade. “He would become violent, sometimes, and we told the management he was dangerous. He was very powerful.”

General release
Dlamini had on Thursday promised to provide detailed responses to the M&G but instead released a press statement copied to other media houses “announcing” the death.

“Due to the seriousness of the matter, the SANDF will execute a board of inquiry into circumstances surrounding this incident, thus the name of the deceased will be announced once their next-of-kin have been informed”.

However, the M&G has reliably learnt that the family was notified of the man’s death on Wednesday, and that Mkhwanazi’s father of the deceased had viewed and identified his body.

The South African Police Service and the Military Police had visited the scene and were investigating the matter, according to the statement.

On Thursday morning, Dlamini told the M&G that the department was informed about Mkhwanazi’s death on Wednesday night. He described the incident as “negligent”.

“It’s a terrible situation. It’s unbelievable that people treat each other like that.”

The deceased’s colleagues said management has been alerted to disappearance. “Every time we did a roll call, the management asked where Mkhwanazi was and no one knew. I don’t know where they looked for him … if they searched properly they would have found him.”

Another colleague said: “He was in his room in the barracks. It shows he was not checked at all, that’s why he died and no one knew”. Mkhwanazi had a room to himself while other soldiers shared rooms. “He chose to live by himself because he was troubled”.

‘No one cared’
Mkhwanazi worked in Doornkop military base but lived in Lenz because Doornkop did not have accommodation. His colleagues said he was mentally fit when he joined the military in the early 1990s, but became troubled several years ago. “This guy didn’t even wear a uniform; he stayed away from work and no one cared. The management just left him like that,” said the colleague.

Another soldier said: “When we fight and say government doesn’t care about soldiers, people think we don’t want to work. The conditions that we work under are very bad and stressful.”

Sandu’s Swelinkomo said at least one more member of the same military base was still missing.

The interim commission told Parliament early this year that they were horrified by the “appalling conditions” at the Lenz and Doornkop bases.