SA soldiers died in CAR while generals dithered

Internal South African National Defence Force (SANDF) documents paint a dramatic picture of desperate efforts by operations staff to source a cargo aircraft to transport support equipment, including armoured vehicles, to Bangui in the Central African Republic.

Read Bangui bunglers score R209m in contracts

The first shots were fired on Friday March 22 at about 4pm, and the operational planners decided on Saturday evening that an Antonov AN-124 aircraft was required. This was to transport eight Mamba vehicles, one diesel bowser and supporting equipment to the mission area that had “become a war zone overnight”.

On Sunday morning the rebels brokered a ceasefire. By then, 13 South African soldiers were dead and 27 injured.

In a written account seen by ama­Bhungane, the director of joint operation support, identified as Lieutenant Colonel WJ Damon, describes how they had tried to contact the companies that were registered as approved SANDF suppliers.

“From midnight Saturday to Sunday morning in the early hours … we tried to locate the registered companies to indicate the availability of [an] AN-124. Avient was the only company indicating at that stage of the night non-availability … The phones of the other charter companies were just ringing.

“Due to the urgency … Ultimate Heli … was also contacted and within 30 minutes confirm[ed] availability for Sunday night March 24 2013, landing at AFB Waterkloof.” The plan was for the plane to load and leave at first light on the Monday morning.

After receiving verbal approval, Ultimate Heli began moving the aircraft from the West Indies to within a few flying hours of Pretoria.

According to Damon, it was on Sunday afternoon that the SANDF’s director of logistics procurement, Brigadier General Thithuwi Mulaudzi, intervened.

Damon writes: “During the day, around 3pm, Lt Col [David] Engela [who works in the procurement division] call[ed] to say Brig Gen Mulaudzi instructed them to go out on tender again to the same companies although they [had] already indicate[d] nonavailability, for a second time.

“According to Lt Col Engela, the second time, later that afternoon, Y&P indicated that they can provide an AN-124, after the same day earlier they indicate[d] nonavailability.”

Damon alleges that after a letter of authority was issued to Y&P the company indicated that the AN-124 would only be available later in the week, not on the day as approved.

By that stage the Ultimate Heli contract had been cancelled, though the SANDF would still be presented with a bill for having placed the aircraft on standby.

Six-day wait
In a separate report, director of joint operational support Brigadier General Tersia Jacobs says Y&P was not in a position to fly on the Monday and only delivered the vehicles six days later, on Saturday March 30.

She notes: “During the week all SANDF troops were moved from the base to the airport, rebel fighting continued. Most of our troops feared for their lives, even while they were next to the runway. A civilian company was greedy enough to tender for the job, [but] could not deliver against the operational target date.”

She added that, even when informed that the company did not have a plane available to fulfil the contract on time, “Mulaudzi preferred to ignore the information at hand”. She said she had asked the chief of logistics to launch an investigation – a demand repeated in letters by other senior SANDF officers, including Major General William Nkonyeni and Damon.

Brigadier General Sam Motau, director of joint support for operations, then gave a verbal order to procure anyone “who can meet critical timelines”. Ultimate Heli was then contracted, though it was not an approved supplier. It was far cheaper, bidding at R13-million; Y&P’s total bill was R26.7-million.

The company’s director, Shaun Roseveare, confirmed that he had invoiced the SANDF for the four days the Antonov had been parked in West Africa, but had not been paid.

Numerous attempts were made to contact Mulaudzi for comment, without success.

Adverse reports had little effect on tenders

A tender list compiled by a South African National Defence Force insider indicates that, in the 15 months up to June this year, Y&P received 91 tenders from the SANDF with a cumulative value of R209-million.

In the same period, seven rival companies were jointly awarded 40 tenders with a total value of R67-million. SANDF internal documents seen by amaBhungane raise questions about that record, given the alarming picture of incidents associated with Y&P.

A letter by Lieutenant BA Steenkamp, the SANDF representative at the United Nations observer mission in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, alleges that he personally witnessed the “pressurisation problem” on a Y&P-brokered Boeing LMG749 during a flight from Kinshasa to Bloemfontein carrying 130 South African soldiers.

Oxygen masks deployed and the soldiers panicked, he said. The plane was diverted to Zambia, where Steenkamp said it was revealed that Y&P could not provide a back-up plane. According to bid adjudication information amaBhungane has seen, contractors are required to offer a back-up aircraft within 24-hour reach of the principal aircraft.

The plane, still suffering from depressurisation, flew on at low altitude to OR Tambo. A second report, by Lieutenant Colonel Willy Damon of the joint operations division, alleges that the “unserviceable” Boeing was exchanged for a DC9 without consultation with the defence department, in breach of contract and procurement procedures.

“The company ignored the … closure of the Bloemfontein airport and landed unmanned, although they were told not to do so,” Damon writes. “This kind of attitude from civilian companies … is not only unacceptable but also illegal, seeing that the aircraft was fully under the command of the DoD [department of defence].” 

Free State border control officials also issued strongly worded letters of complaint, saying that the landing posed health and security issues, especially because the plane had come from the “yellow fever belt”.

After the incident at Kigali Airport, Major C Simmers, also of the UN observer mission in the DRC, wrote that an IL76 transport plane leased by Y&P from the company Soviet Air Charter, struck the airstrip with its wing.

This had prevented the off-loading of the vehicles on the plane, the detention of the plane, the arrest of the crew and “unnecessary parking and levies”.

Major General William Nkonyeni, general officer commanding joint operational headquarters, is scathing about Y&P’s listing of the detained aircraft as a back-up plane for an SANDF mission to Sudan days later. In a June 2013 letter, he says: “Y&P Logistics has compromised a peace operation’s sustainment flight by bidding for a task, while the CEO [chief executive officer] knew that it was a huge risk to plan the flight around the IL76 still in Rwanda’s possession.” 

There are also hints of collusion by the defence department’s procurement division, which, according to Nkonyeni, “changed the letter of acceptance with new tail numbers the same day and forwarded it to the [South African Air Force] for processing”. He notes that this is “unlawful [and] can be challenged by competitors if known”.

SANDF responded after the Mail & Guardian had gone to press. Here is its response in full. – Pauli van Wyk

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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Pauli van Wyk
Pauli van Wyk is a Scorpio investigative journalist. She writes about the justice cluster, state-owned companies, state politics and the inescapable collision course they're on. Pauli cut her teeth at Media24. She became a journo at Beeld, was trained by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and joined Mail & Guardian's investigative team before becoming a member of Scorpio.

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