A consistent effort by the governing ANC to cast the United States as agents of regime change in South Africa has failed to gain traction in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) barracks and among its generals.
“In 2011, when we started the exercises, there was a lot of mistrust because we had never worked together … But we are here as a military; what politicians do, they do. We have a common understanding of a military doctrine and we operated based on it,” said SANDF General Gustav Lategan.
Earlier this year, a gathering of former liberation movements, which included the ANC, Namibia’s Swapo, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, Mozambique’s Frelimo and Angola’s MPLA, met to discuss the threat of being deposed by nefarious forces.
The liberation movements-turned-governing parties received a report detailing “hard and soft power techniques” used by “the West” to unseat their governments, which ranged from covert intelligence operations to full-out war.
Despite the paranoia in political circles, joint training with the US army continued with no trace of such suspicion at the SANDF training base in Lohotla in July.
“It’s truly been spectacular, the relationship. The warm acceptance we have had from the South African army has been truly outstanding,” said US Deputy Major General William Pendergrast.
“I cannot answer the political views of US or RSA governments. The decision to hold the exercise is taken at the department of international relations and co-operation’s level; it’s chaired by the minister of Dirco and approved by her counterpart in the USA,” added Lategan.
The Shared Accord training series has been signed off three times by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane.
She was pleased with report-backs on the training, according to Lategan, even though the ANC apparently considers the US army to be an enemy force.
“The decision to hold this exercise was taken at a political level and we were tasked to execute. As good soldiers, all the other political statements I cannot comment on. We have planned and executed what the two political leaders decided.
“On a weekly basis, we send through a report and we have an after-action review. So it’s not something we do on ground-level with no political control,” Lategan added.
The US generals were equally pleased with the level of collaboration. The aim of the exercise was to establish good relationships between the junior leadership of the US Army’s Africa Command and the SANDF, the commanding general of the US Africa Army, Major General Joseph Harrington, said.
“The cornerstone of every relationship is trust and getting together, having our soldiers with South African soldiers in this environment. They develop a relationship,” he said.
“There are more Nigerians born every day than Europeans and Russians together. Both armies know 20 years from now they’re gonna do something. We don’t know where it’s gonna be, we’re not gonna give them exactly the right equipment and we’re not gonna tell ’em the right things to do.
“But if you get the development of young leaders going to these environments now, the lessons they learn they can juxtapose there,” Harrington added.
But the collaboration also seemed out of place, considering the ANC’s concerted effort to position South Africa with the other Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations in general, and Russia and China specifically.
South Africa has undertaken similar military exercises with Brazil, but no joint military exercises have happened with China and India.
Lategan and Pendegrast both said that just because South Africa and the US are training together does not guarantee the countries will one day be fighting together.
“For us, we changed the conditions of how we train. We make it more difficult to increase our training proficiency. The elements [of the US army] that have come here have been better equipped to operate around the world. To say, ‘Is it gonna be a future event?’ — who knows. But, from our perspective, it’s about friendships and partnerships and training together,” Pendergrast said.