I am honoured to be back in Kimberely for the second time in four days to join the South African National Defence Force and the people of the Northern Cape in hosting Armed Forces Day.
At the interfaith service I attended on Sunday, I saw in our armed forces a reflection of the South Africa we are constantly seeking to build.
I saw the diversity of our country enveloped in your uniforms.
I saw – just as I witness today – black and white South Africans, young and old, men and women, together.
I saw discipline, commitment and professionalism.
And I saw the warmth of our national character shining through.
The participation of all faiths in the Sunday event was a reminder of the inclusive society we are building.
It was heartening to see the wonderful, creative talent of men and women in uniform on display.
On Sunday, it was our men and women in uniform who lifted the spirit of our nation through the soaring voices of soloists, trumpeters, saxophonists and the vibrant defence choir.
So when we look at our armed forces we see a manifestation of the South Africa that belongs to all of us, black and white, which our Constitution directs us to build.
This day is a reminder that our soldiers are an integral part of us, not an external force.
You are bedrock of our communities.
You are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, neighbours.
We dare not fail to appreciate how the peace we enjoy lives alongside the constant vigilance and readiness that enables you to keep us as safe as we are.
You are opening incredible opportunities for young people in both the public and private sectors.
South Africa’s defence technology is globally sought after.
Much of our technological capability shows that we are well positioned, through our armed forces, to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This has established our defence sector as an important contributor to innovation in our economy.
It has made defence a sector where young people can exercise not just their physical capabilities, but their creativity and exercise skills across a broad range of endeavours – from catering to intelligence gathering, to engineering and project management.
A decision was taken in 2012 to proclaim the 21st of February as Armed Forces Day.
It commemorated the day in 1917 when the SS Mendi was sunk in World War I.
The SS Mendi was transporting 823 members of the 5th Battalion, the South African Native Labour Corps to France, when it was struck by the SS Darro.
Over 600 black troops died in the disaster.
It is a day on which we remember the bravery of soldiers prepared to fight in a war that was not theirs.
It is recorded that as the SS Mendi sank, the soldiers chose to die with dignity and honour.
It was this tragedy that SEK Mqhayi recalled in his poem, ‘Ukutshona kukaMendi’.
In it he writes:
Could we have sacrificed anything more precious?
What did it mean to sacrifice a village?
Was it not giving the bull calves of your homestead?
Sending those very ones who loved you as a nation?
We’re talking deep now; we have added our voice,
Proudly we are part of those opening the road to freedom.
In the way Abel was the sacrifice of the earth?
In the way the Messiah was the sacrifice of heaven?
Be consoled, all you orphans!
Be consoled, all you young widows!
Somebody has to die, so that something can be built;
Somebody has to serve, so that others can live…
This day has become a day that allows us to remember all men and women who have paid the ultimate price in defence of freedom, peace and justice.
It reminds us that blood was spilled by many of our people to guarantee us our freedom and dignity.
It is a reminder that honourable and courageous men and women continue to put their lives on the line to secure our peace and defend our Constitution.
This year, Armed Forces Day celebrations carry a profound and special meaning for our nation.
They occur at a time when our defence force has once again demonstrated the deep roots of our Constitutional dispensation.
They are even more significant because they occur in a year when South Africa commemorates the centenary year of our icon and first Commander-in-Chief, President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
It is this SANDF that President Mandela envisaged as a non-partisan unifier and defender of all South Africans.
President Mandela oversaw the formation of the SANDF as a force that upholds the Constitution of the Republic in defence of all its people.
President Mandela left behind a disciplined SANDF that protects our territorial integrity and supports peace and development initiatives on the African continent.
Thank you heartily for your patriotism and for lending a hand in the renewal and development of our beloved country.
We applaud the major role that the Department of Defence is playing in actively promoting our Defence Force as a career of choice.
During the past year, the South African Navy continued to lead the Department of Defence’s participation in Operation Phakisa.
Through Operation Phakisa, the SANDF aims to enhance ship-building.
During this year, the SANDF will lead the rejuvenation of the Naval Dockyard in Simon’s Town.
It will commence with the building of patrol and survey vessels for the South African Navy to rejuvenate the national ship building industry.
This project will create 570 high technical jobs and 4,500 indirect jobs over the next five years.
The SANDF conducted various maritime border safeguarding operations under Operation Corona, ensuring the safety and stability of South Africa’s maritime zones.
Operation Thusano is a departmental initiative with the Cuban armed forces that involves the maintenance and repairing of the SANDF operational vehicle fleet.
From inception in 2015, over 4,000 vehicles have been repaired and several workshops in SANDF units revived.
A total of 446 South Africans are apprentices and a further 395 have qualified as technicians through transfer of practical knowledge by the Cubans.
As I mentioned in the State of the Nation Address, I will soon be visiting the leadership and management of our national departments to see how well we can work together to accelerate the imperatives of service delivery, training and job creation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the South African National Defence Force, I will be prioritising my engagement with the Department of Defence.
On this historic and auspicious day, I wish you well and thank you once more for your loyalty to our country and for your service to our people.
I thank you.