By Jessie Taylor
While the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is known for defending our national borders, it has also played a key role in supporting government departments on the frontline during the global pandemic. The SANDF has deployed its members on multiple occasions to support the services of healthcare and frontline workers, during periods in which South Africa’s Covid-19 numbers have spiked.
Boots on the ground
The latest deployment of the SANDF was during the country’s second wave in December and January. More than 2000 troops were allocated to aid in the government’s response to the global pandemic.
Amid the second wave of Covid-19 cases, the country moved from level 1 to adjusted level 3 on 28 December 2020. The deployment, which ran from 29 December 2020 to 31 January 2021, was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. This was enforced in an effort to tighten regulations.
The President authorised the employment of 2 122 members of the SANDF for “service in order to preserve life, health or property in emergency or humanitarian relief operations”, in support of other government departments. The SANDF members also worked in cooperation with the South African Police, to prevent crime and enforce restrictions under the adjusted Level 3 lockdown regulations.
The SANDF members have assisted the National Department of Health by providing professional Doctors, Nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Of the troops deployed in the front line against Covid-19 are soldiers tasked with border safeguarding operations between Zimbabwe, eSwatini, Mozambique and Botswana. Other SANDF members have provided support to the South African Police Service, to enforce regulations such as curfew, the ban on the sale and distribution of alcohol, the prohibition of public gatherings, and the legal requirement to wear a face mask while in public.
The deployment of so many troops is no small feat and comes at a cost estimated at around R95 million. The most recent deployment, at the beginning of the year, to assist the Covid-19 effort follows three others in the last 12 months. An initial deployment of 2 820 SANDF members began on 25 March 2020, followed by 76 000 troops deployed on 21 April 2020, and 20 000 deployed on 30 June 2020.
Forces are also currently deployed on Operation Corona which serves to safeguard South Africa’s borderline, especially now that 20 ports of entry have been closed to the general public. To swell the SANDF’s ranks, reserves in the South African Army, South African Air Force, South African Navy and the South African Military Health Service have been called up and deployed together with the Regular Force.
Essential in the fight against Covid-19
The South African National Defence Force has been essential to our national effort to confront the virus, Ramaphosa said during an address on National Armed Forces Day on Sunday 21 February. He commended the SANDF for their role in helping to enforce lockdown regulations, while still maintaining compassion for the hardships of their fellow South Africans.
“It was our soldiers who helped to maintain law and order in the early days of the lockdown. The landward force deployed no less than 33 companies in under 72 hours. The SANDF undertook mercy missions to repatriate our citizens abroad who were fearful and wanted to be reunited with their families,” he said.
Assisting vulnerable communities
In addition, the SA Army Engineers Corps helped deliver clean drinking water to vulnerable communities. The SA Air Force and the Logistics Division managed the distribution of much-needed supplies to deployed forces. The South African Military Health Service deployed its personnel in all provinces, where they worked in hotspots and helped set up field hospitals and quarantine sites.
“But what perhaps touched us as the nation most was the sight of SANDF members helping the elderly carry their groceries, walking alongside young people making their way home, and many other instances that showed our armed forces at their best,” Ramaphosa added.
But the role of the defence force in the fight against Covid-19 is far from over. The next area the SANDF will be critical in is the rollout of vaccines across the country. Troops will be assigned to vaccination sites, where they will safeguard the distribution of the doses. The SANDF will assist in the rollout plan by being stationed at vaccine administration sites to secure the vaccine and to bolster security measures. These sites will include 18 public hospitals, as well as 13 private hospitals.
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