South Africa’s airborne forces have celebrated their 50th anniversary with a mock attack and parade at the central city of Bloemfontein, hailing a proud tradition expressed in both war and peace.
The parade was held at the 1 Parachute Battalion base in Bloemfontein’s military district, Tempe, where a key military hospital and both infantry and armour units are based.
The unit’s motto is “Ex Alto Vincimus”, Latin for “We Conquer from Above”.
The paratroops of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are under the overall command of 44 Parachute Regiment with its headquarters also in Tempe. 1 Parachute Battalion is a Regular Force unit and is the centre of the country’s security force parachute training. Paratroops are called “parabats” colloquially, which is a portmanteau of “parachute” and “battalion”.
Forty-Four (44) Parachute Regiment’s commander, Colonel Andy Mathu, and 1 Parachute Battalion’s Second-in-Command (“2iC”), Lieutenant Colonel M.J. Adoni, gave a media conference before the paratroopers did their thing. He gave a brief overview of the unit’s history since 1961. He described the unit’s part in the Bush War (1961-1989) as well as the restructuring which followed the end of Apartheid in 1994. The first use of the unit was in Burundi in 2002. (Following fighting between the government and Hutu rebels.) Mathu said:
“One Parachute Battalion, for the first time in 2002, spearheaded the very first peacekeeping operation in Burundi and they did very well. There was no time for preparations and the unit never received any training in terms of peacekeeping but they did very well and we are very proud of that.”
The unit is the Army’s rapid reaction force. As such, they need to stay up to date with developments in the field. Also, they have a social function, Colonel Mathu said: “1 Parachute Battalion is not living in isolation. They are living with the community of Bloemfontein and they are involved in many activities.”
He added: “Training is part of their role. We had exercises with Americans, French and we did have exercises with SADC. (Southern African Development Community). And the Defence Force has pledged 1 Parachute Battalion as a unit that serves under the SADC Brigade, and we are very proud of that.”
Mathu said many former “parabats” had gone on to do well in civilian life.
“People like Colonel Le Roux who is working with PISA. He is one guy who is making sure that our parachute-related equipment meets the international standards. “
He also praised the earlier commanders of the battalion:
“We are very proud of having a lot of unit commanders that commanded 1 Parachute Battalion from 1961. Those guys did very well. They did a fantastic job to shape 1 Parachute Battalion today and I can say that the current commanders are successful because of the foundation laid by those Officers Commanding as from 1961. We are very proud of them and we say thank you to them for making what 1 Parachute Battalion is today.”
Referring to the unit’s founding on 1 April, 1961, he said:
“And today we are celebrating the 50th Birthday Anniversary. It has been a very long journey; it has not been a walk in the park. There have been trials and tribulations, we have had good, bad, trying and challenging times in the unit and we are here, we survived all that. If you look at the members of 1 Parachute Battalion today, almost 75 per cent were just born, or not born in 1961. So you can see the 25 per cent that are here, they’ve got a lot of experience (and they) ploughed back what they learned as far back as 1961.”
Colonel Mathu also spoke on the issue of female soldiers as well as the unit’s training role:
“In the past three or four years we managed to have five females to go through parachute selection, they are now troops in the battalion. They are doing very well. Five of them are on deployment in Sudan as we speak and also we have one officer, a captain, who is from air defence artillery. The idea is for these ladies to go and recruit others.”
He added that the South African Police Service (SAPS) Special Task Team was also trained by the “parabats”.
“The difference with the police is that they don’t go through the parachute selection… when they come here, we just put them on the basic static line course.”
(The “static line” refers to a cable fixed in the aircraft to which the parachutes are attached, opening them automatically when the troops jump.)
South African Special Forces also do the parachute selection and static line course.
I asked Colonel Mathu what the role of the parabats was in peacekeeping missions:
“We have a role to play, though we do not deploy them as airborne forces, we deploy with the unit that is deployed. For instance, the (airborne) company that is deployed in Sudan right now with 5 South African Infantry Battalion, so they are part of that unit, so they do what that infantry unit does.”
I wanted to know whether the unit would operate as an airborne force if the need arose:
“If there is a need for that, they will be used as such, including jumping. If there is a need for them to jump, they will be utilised as such.”
I asked, in the light of the death in a recent exercise of a young airborne soldier, about the Airborne’s accident rate.
“I won’t say we have got a lot of accidents, but we do have accidents from time to time. We must understand that parachuting is dangerous, but we are doing everything in our power to make sure that our training is up to international standards to avoid accidents like those. Some things we cannot run away from. Some of the fatal accidents may be not due to training, not due to equipment, but may be due to the individual himself not applying the training that he has received in emergencies. So at times we say, ‘it was his day, God decided to call him up.’
In the afternoon, guests and the media were taken to the Tempe Sports Ground where a mock attack was carried out by Oryx helicopter and a mock Casevac (Casualty Evacuation) was done by an Agusta helicopter, after which the “attacking force” was “extracted” by the Oryx.
The full battalion then paraded with a band from nearby Kroonstad and four companies as well as a colour group and an officer’s detachment. In his speech, Officer Commanding Infantry Formation, Lieutenant General Themba Nkabinde, spoke with pride of the remaining two soldiers from the first training group of 15 who went to the UK, and pointed out that the parabats had achieved the confidence of the people as well as being able to train 70 new troops a year. There had been three fatalities, he said. He ended his speech by saying:
“I salute you and may the next 50 years be just as successful as the past 50. You are still second to none and remember Ex Alto Vincimus – We conquer from above.