Maverick Citizen


Eyebrows raised after SA Air Force chief revokes cancellation of officers’ course despite fitness fail

Eyebrows raised after SA Air Force chief revokes cancellation of officers’ course despite fitness fail
Air Force Chief Lieutenant-General Wiseman Mbambo. (Photo: SANDF / Twitter)

The chief of the South African Air Force, Lieutenant-General Wiseman Mbambo, recently ordered that a cancelled officers’ forming course ‘proceed as planned’, despite more than half of the candidates failing to meet the fitness requirements. Defence force experts have weighed in on whether the move is practical.

Out of the 16 learners partaking in the South African Air Forces’ (SAAF’s) officers’ forming course (OFC) 02/2023 — intended to equip candidates with the skills to be commissioned officers in the SAAF — nine failed to pass the fitness test that formed part of the entrance requirements. OFC 02/2023 refers to the SAAF’s second forming course of the year.

This came to light in a directive signed by the chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant-General Wiseman Mbambo, and dated 20 July 2023, ordering that the course go ahead as planned, despite more than half the candidates failing to meet the standard for fitness.

“It has come to the attention of the Chief of the Air Force (CAF) that nine learners out of 16 have failed the fitness test as an entry requirement for acceptance on OFC, and as a result, the OFC had to be cancelled,” stated Mbambo in the letter, sent to the SAAF’s chief director for force preparation, Major-General Lancelot Mathebula.

“The SAAF should consider affording these aspirant officers an opportunity to be officers’ course qualified. It would be in the best interest of both the organisation and indeed its members, particularly those who passed the fitness test, to be allowed to proceed with the OFC as planned… A once-off waiver should be granted to the nine learners who failed the fitness test.”

Lancelot Mathebula, SAAF

Major-General Lancelot Mathebula. (Photo: SANDF / Twitter)

In a Twitter post sharing Mbambo’s directive, United Democratic Movement leader and retired Major-General Bantubonke Holomisa stated that the order lowered standards and risked lives.

“This directive must be rejected,” he said.

A commissioned officer is a person who has received rank and commission in the armed forces and holds a position of authority. A candidate officer participating in an OFC is likely to become a second lieutenant once commissioned, according to Dean Wingrin, aviation journalist and defenceWeb correspondent.

In his directive, Mbambo stated that the nine learners who failed the fitness test should “gradually and progressively” prepare themselves to pass the fitness test two months into the OFC.

“Members who fail the fitness test but pass the course will be recognised as having passed the OFC but would still be required to successfully undertake and pass the fitness test at their respective units for them to be considered as fully OFC qualified for commissioning/appointment as officers,” he continued.

“CAF [Chief Air Force], therefore, directs CDFP [Chief Director Force Preparation] to ensure that the OFC 02/2023 continues as planned, to avoid creating a backlog.”

According to the SAAF, the course commenced on 17 July.

Possible reasons for proceeding with the OFC

All new defence force recruits usually go through about six months of basic training, according to Wingrin. Those who are selected to become officers go through an officers’ forming course.

“A short while after basics — a short while could be even six months later — they will go through an officers’ forming course, which is another rigorous training course to become an officer. It’s not a qualification, as such, but it’s in order to be commissioned as an officer into the defence force… There’s a lot of fitness and [physical training] sessions involved,” he said.

In light of the disruptions that defence force training has faced in recent years, the air force chief seems to be taking a “practical approach” to the potential cancellation of the OFC 02/2023 due to unfit candidates, he continued.

“Covid has already stuffed up training and courses and qualifications in the whole defence force. It’s delayed matters quite a bit,” said Wingrin.

“So, obviously, they are playing catch-up now. To have another delay in something as important as an officer forming course is detrimental to the air force. So, that’s why I think he’s trying to be practical in not creating more delays in the course.”



Extracts from a restricted signal message form sent to Daily Maverick by an anonymous source, allegedly showing that a relative of Lieutenant-General Wiseman Mbambo is a candidate on the South African Air Force’s officer forming course 02/2023. (Images: Supplied)

Daily Maverick has seen a copy of a restricted air force document with the learner details and course rules for OFC 02/2023, seemingly showing that one of the 16 candidates on the course has the surname Mbambo.

It has been alleged to Daily Maverick that this learner is a relative of Wiseman Mbambo who met the fitness requirements for the course, but stood to be affected by the cancellation of the training due to the high number of learners who did not pass the test.

The SAAF was unhelpful in providing clarity on this. It did not confirm whether one of the OFC learners was a relative of Mbambo, instead stating, “It can be confirmed that one of the members on Officers Forming Course (OFC) 02/23 bears the surname Mbambo and the SAAF does not keep records of members’ parents’ personal details and the said ‘Mbambo’ on course passed the fitness test.”

Responding to questions from Daily Maverick, the SAAF said there were two officers’ forming courses per year, each lasting six months.

“If a course is cancelled, successful candidates would have to wait for six months to be accommodated for the first scheduled course in the next year,” it said.

“It is not the first time that a waiver has been put on this [fitness] requirement for OFC training.”

The SAAF said Mbambo considered various implications when choosing to proceed with the OFC, including the organisational impact in the long and short term, the need for human resources and the existence of vacant critical posts within the organisation.

“[The Chief of the Air Force’s] directive to proceed with OFC 01/23 [sic] does not imply lowering of standards nor risking of the lives of many, but it is his prerogative to invoke certain waivers addressing various requirements in order to address the matters mentioned above and other reasons,” it stated.

Why was fitness so poor?

There are two streams of potential candidates for the OFC: those who recently completed basic training and those who are already non-commissioned officers, according to Darren Olivier, director of African Defence Review. Non-commissioned officers are military personnel who have been afforded a position of authority, but not a commission.

Olivier offered two possible explanations for why the fitness levels among the course candidates were so low.

“The one, of course, is that… people [from basic training] were allowed to get through who shouldn’t have been there… and in that case, the unfitness is because they didn’t go through the right process,” he said.

“The second possibility is that a fair number of them were not necessarily fresh recruits, fresh out of basics, but were non-commissioned officers who were coming through… In that case, people are older, typically late 20s, even 30s. They’ve been in their units; they might have lost fitness.”

The fitness standards within the air force are of greater importance for field personnel than those filling administrative roles, Olivier said.

“There is an issue where it has become more and more difficult, especially with the understaffing and other constraints, for members — especially busy units — to have enough capacity and time to keep fit. It is plausible that the NCOs coming out of the units to the course might not be… totally fit right from the start,” he said.

According to the copy of the restricted signal message form Daily Maverick has seen, only seven of the learners on OFC 02/2023 were airmen, being the lowest rank of personnel within the air force. The remainder comprised two candidate officers, three corporals, three sergeants and one flight sergeant.

air force holomisa

UDM leader Bantu Holomisa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Daily Maverick / Leila Dougan)

What are the concerns?

Speaking about Mbambo’s directive to continue with the course despite nine candidates failing the fitness test, Holomisa told Daily Maverick, “It’s dangerous in the sense that if the chances are that you are going to pass those candidates who are not fit, and we are not even told what kind of fitness is this which they didn’t pass — it could be related to eyes; it could be related to epilepsy, something like that… one has to be careful.

“Overall, when you see a circular like that, signed by the commander of the air force, you get worried that why would [they], in the first instance… break the basic rule of a soldier? Why do you want to be a soldier yet you are unfit? I don’t buy that idea.”

The South African Air Force should have postponed the course and sought suitable candidates, he concluded.

Olivier highlighted the need for the air force to provide more information about what the deferral of the fitness requirement meant, why it was done and how standards would be maintained.

“As a public… professionalism and the standards maintained in the air force are hugely important to us. As a matter of the kind of oversight role that we play and the need for us to have a good understanding of the air force and to trust it, we need to have [these things explained to us],” he said.

“I think we just really need to have more transparency and information around the circumstances.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Lancelot? Is that seriously his name?

  • John Buchan says:

    That’s the spirit and the tried and tested African way. Lower the bar rather than try harder.

    • P B M .. says:

      They will find any excuse in the book to justify lowering of standards. Over 50 years ago I was in the SAAF at the flying school in Dunnottar. There was no way in hell that they would consider altering the requirements for any course. DB (detention barracks) was usually a sufficient motivation to get yourself and your unit up to standard and we knew what the consequences of failure would be.

  • David Pennington says:

    Eish, this flying club she is broken

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Too much KFC. Finger lickin’ good.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Thats it Mr Mbambo.

    Bend those rules until they break.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    I wonder what percentage of the SANDF are able to meet the standard fitness requirements. Is the 2.4 km run still the benchmark?

  • Zamfoot 1 1 says:

    Is anyone supprised ? As an ex soldier (not of this this fair land) what I see in public of the Army Airforce and Navy and indeed the Police is that basic fitness tests evidently are not priority. I believe DM had an article not so long ago exposing the large number of SADF personnel who are not fit to be deployed.

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    Being able to waddle to the KFC or Nandos should be good enough.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Give them another chance! Give them another chance! Same thing is happening in academics too!

  • Peter Geddes says:

    Well, in 1977 I reported for compulsory military duty at the SA Air Force, after completing my BSc Engineering degree at Wits.
    After six weeks of basic training, absolutely no officers training nor fitness test, I was suddenly made a full (two star) lieutenant.
    I was then packed off to a technical logistics unit where I did very useful and valuable work on aircraft engine maintenance for the remainder of my two years.
    I don’t think I was ever particularly fit but it was just an office job.

    • Deon Botha-Richards says:

      When I did my officers course in 1985 we had many engineers on our course. They were destined to be officers but the6 had to pass the course.

      And they had to pass the very physical aspect of it too.

      We were literally run into the ground. Those who collapsed had be carried by those still moving.

      Fitness was more than a basic requirement.

  • Antonio Tonin says:

    Not the first time that the fitness requirement for an officers’ course has been waivered? What does this say about the SANDF? One would think that physical fitness is a basic requirement at all times for active military service. A sorry state of affairs.

  • Rory Short says:

    During WWII my dad was responsible for the training of new army recruits from the Witwatersrand. He was a stickler for fitness and as a consequence was nick-named ‘Vomit or Bust’ by the recruits. The nick-name came from his initials V G O’Borthistle Short.

  • Tracy Smith says:

    In the race to the bottom, South Africa appears to be winning. That’s it’s own incredible accomplishment.

  • Graham Nelson says:

    The officers responsible for getting the soldiers fit are too lazy themselves. Once your leaders have no interest it filters down. Exactly the same as in government. They all only live for the perks. Beeg lunches and beeg pay checks all funded by us struggling taxpayers.

  • Johan Buys says:

    It would make for a great comedy if all the defence force officers were subjected to a personal fitness test every year. Come on, just for laughs? I predict 10 minute for the 2.4km would be a bridge too far, even in sneakers shorts and T Shirts, never mind in gear.

  • Sean Pettit says:

    An officer in an operational area will experience the loneliness of command as hard decisions have to be made. The men under his command will follow him if he has earned their respect – if he has not had to reach into the darkest depths of his character and fortitude to survive and build back up again then he is untried, untested and a possible liability on the battlefield!

  • LAURIE DRAKE says:

    Must be the only chief of a national air force without pilot’s wings. Previous experience : Probably worked in the post office!!

  • Simon Winde says:

    It’s like the gas explosion in Jo’burg. At some point we will find out if it is/was competence or incompetence causing a ‘whatever’ disaster involving the airforce.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    You can just have a look at our armed forces to see that a fair number are overweight. Standards should never be lowered. If some people do not pass the requisite criteria, they should be rejected and given a time frame to correct the problem and then allowed to retest.

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