Where ignorance fears to tread.
16 December 2017 11:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pikkie Greeff

Cigar smoke and mirrors - the tale of the Cuban engineers

  • Pikkie Greeff
    pikkie-greeff.jpg
    Pikkie Greeff

    Pikkie Greeff joined SANDF in 1993 as law officer in prosecution and later Defence counsel. He was admitted as advocate to High Court in 1997. He started at SA National Defence Union (SANDU) in 1999 as chief legal advisor, and was appointed as SANDU National Secretary in 2008.

The South African government has hired Cuban engineers to address challenges posed by inadequate infrastructure in water provisioning, and according to the press releases, it’s because there weren’t enough qualified South African engineers. But dig a little deeper, and one by one, the irregularities begin to emerge. One doesn’t have to be a professor of mathematics to find that the details just don’t add up.

A malaise continues around the South African government’s decision to acquire the services of Cuban engineers to address the challenges posed by inadequate infrastructure in water provisioning. The claims from government’s side that there is a shortage of qualified South African engineers, or that engineers were unwilling to work in rural areas, had necessitated the deal with Cuba, were in media releases by both the Consulting Engineers of South Africa (Cesa) as well the South African Institute of Civil Engineering (SAICE) exposed as fanciful at its best. Specifically, they pointed out that 500 engineers remained unemployed in South Africa.

That perennial thorn in government’s side, those controversial but almost always legally accurate folks called AfriForum, also weighed in on the debate by delivering to the Department of Water and Sanitation the actual resumés of out-of-work South African engineers, thereby further poking holes in the department’s thinly spread story.

I pause here to mention, on a personal side, that a female family member of mine obtained her engineering degree at University of Pretoria in 2014 and was only able to secure employment this month, while 30 of her fellow graduates (both black and white) remain unemployed.

Of course it doesn’t help government’s credibility on this issue that, firstly, the same sought-after Cuban water engineering genius was already deployed in this country as far back as 2001, with little to show for it. Nor, secondly, that Cuba suffers under a severe water provisioning dysfunction to the level of creating health hazards for ordinary Cubans nor, thirdly, that Minister Nomvula Mokonyane ludicrously (and in a manner rather irrelevant to the issue of engineering) stated that the Cuban engineers were recruited for their “strong political views”. (Of course one is rather surprised to hear that people in Cuba are allowed to have political views).

What is irrefutable is that everything points to government pulling the wool over the eyes of ordinary South Africans as to the true motive behind this so-called recruitment.

Just as South Africans were still puzzling over these strange events, they got hit last week with a similar oddity - this time playing out in the South African National Defence Force. The Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, Rapport, reported that over 100 Cuban mechanics from the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) have been imported to assist the SANDF in tending to derelict and unserviceable military vehicles.

This project apparently, and according to Rapport, stems from an agreement the SANDF Chief, General Solly Shoke, signed with Cuban authorities. The effect of these revelations are startling, even more so than the Cuban Water Engineer issue, and well for quite a number of reasons.

The SANDF Chief purportedly signed the agreement in question. The purported costs from the Defence budget amount, according to Rapport, to over R250m. However, there is nothing in Defence legislation which allows Gen Shoke the authority to conclude agreements of this nature. It is, in fact, the sole mandate of the Secretary of Defence to reach agreements on behalf of the Department of Defence which have a financial implication on the Defence budget.

In what seems to be a desperate attempt by the Defence minister to save Shoke’s skin in this regard, Rapport also reported on a mandate letter which the Minister produced, authorising Shoke to conclude the agreements necessary to validate the Cuban project. The minister’s letter is undated - a rare occurrence for official ministerial correspondence - and more suspiciously, the letter refers to the exact reference numbers of the relevant, still-to-be-concluded Cuban contracts.

One has to ask, as Rapport did, how did the Minister possibly conceive of the relevant contract reference numbers at a time when she was supposedly mandating Shoke to sign the agreements even before they saw the light of day? The more likely explanation is that the Ministerial mandate was produced after the fact. This in itself, of course, would constitute fraud. But the devil is in the detail.

Firstly, the mandate letter tells Shoke to “take all steps necessary to ensure implementation of the decision to...receive Cuban forces in South Africa to provide technical and professional services”. This can never mean that Shoke then suddenly acquired the right to usurp the Secretary of Defence’s powers to commit the Department of Defence to financial obligations to third parties in this regard. It is a well-established principle in law that one simply cannot be given more powers than that which the law has already assigned to one.

The Ministerial mandate also delegated powers to Shoke to “conclude and sign the following contracts”. These agreements are referenced by the Minister as “TI 17-001-South Africa” and “TI 17-002-South Africa”. The former being to “provide professional and technical services” and the latter to “provide professional training services”. Again, it has to be asked: how could the Minister possibly know in advance what the content of each agreement would entail to such an extent that she even predicted with great accuracy the exact subject matter of each agreement?

Secondly and more ominously, the contracts reference an agreement between a company Technoimport and the SANDF. Yet, according to Rapport, the agreement requires R33m as a first instalment in Euros into the international bank account of a company named Technotex (a Cuban state-owned enterprise). Technotex is not one of the contracting parties.

Technotex is, however, one of the many affiliate companies controlled and owned by the GAESA (Grupo de Administracion Empresarial, SA) or Group for Entrepreneurial Administration, the business arm of the Cuban military regime which was established in the 90s by, it would seem, the rather business-minded Marxist, one Raoul Castro. Tellingly, Castro’s son in law, one Brigadier General Luis Lopez-Callegas, heads GAESA, while its chairperson is a Castro’s military subordinate – Divisional General Julio Casas Regueiro.

For years intelligence reports and accounts obtained from insider defectors from the Castro regime have suggested that the Castro clan has well established Swiss Bank accounts through which the profits generated by GAESA affiliates are funnelled. Could this possibly explain why the Cuban SANDF deal require Euros as payment into an international bank account of an entity unrelated to the contracting parties, but firmly run by the Castro family?

The fact is that GAESA and its affiliates control virtually the entire Cuban economy. Reports have been made internationally that ordinary Cubans are seconded for service by these affiliates abroad in counties like Angola and South Africa, which they are more than willing to heed, as it supplements the woeful Cuban public service salaries they endure.

International reports also suggest that it is seldom possible to verify how much of the compensation paid by foreign governments to GAESA affiliated deals ever reach the ordinary Cuban serving abroad. Effectively and by all accounts, the Cuban regime is brokering ordinary Cubans on the international labour market for huge returns into the Castro family kitty.

Apart from the mentioned legally and morally questionable foundations of the SANDF Cuba deal, one also inevitably stumbles onto the more military related questions.

Three groups of over 100 Cuban military personnel are deployed within three military areas in South Africa. According to SANDF official responses to Rapport’s enquiries, there “is nothing wrong with” the deal and it will assist in building SANDF capacity.

These soldiers will be involved in fixing military vehicles and assessing the status of many derelict and unserviceable vehicles, because – according to the SANDF official line – the private sector has been exploiting the SANDF financially for more than a decade. One has to ask, what kind of mediocre military leadership allows a decade-long exploitation of the SANDF?  

Sources within the SANDF will, however, tell you that in at least one of the THREE military areas, these Cuban mechanics are doing no more than sanding the bodies of weather-beaten vehicles in order for these to be re-sprayed.

Others will tell you that none of these Cubans are able to speak English and they are permanently accompanied by teachers in English/Spanish to translate to the SANDF commanders the output of the mechanics’ findings. This compromises and complicates the ordering of parts and accomplishment of end goals. Bluntly put, how do you effectively command and control soldiers to accomplish a mission when they pose a language barrier? In any event, the parts of a large percentage of the vehicles being inspected and ‘fixed’ are no longer being manufactured. How that conundrum will be solved is a secret best known to the SANDF leadership.

Similarly, you will be told by soldiers (as I have been by a senior officer) that there is absolutely no training of South African soldiers taking place in this country by our Cuban visitors. In any event, all the training manuals are in English. How does one train an artisan, never mind a soldier, when both teacher and student are linguistically incompatible?

More will tell you that outside Pretoria, at the SANDF’s vehicle graveyard, the Cubans are rather uselessly trying to verify (as Spanish speakers) the veracity of meticulously recorded English language documentation certifying the writing off of vehicles. As rumour has it, General Shoke distrusts the SANDF personnel who were involved in the writing off of these vehicles.

More worrying is the fact that no one within the SANDF has any verification of the actual qualifications of the Cuban personnel nor specifically their qualifications regarding the South African manufactured vehicles which they supposedly will assess and fix. Nor has the Department of Defence assured nor provided any proof that these foreign military members deployed within our bases, and with full and unrestricted access to our military transport and logistical capabilities, have any security clearance as required by the Defence Act and conducted by Defence Intelligence. The SANDF, it appears, gets unscreened and unverified foreign military personnel because it mistrusts its own screened and paid-for soldiers.

This should particularly worry the normally security astute South African government who so loves to resort to the notion of ‘National Security’ against its civil rights groups and political opponents. Especially since reports continue to indicate that one of GAESA’s affiliates, Antex SA, which provides service personnel internationally to countries such as South Africa, is in actual fact a front for depositing Cuban intelligence agents abroad.

As things stand, we have no guarantee that the Cuban FAR personnel are who they purport to be, nor that their presence is not an intelligence gathering cover - or at the very least, a security and safety risk. With the sole mandated company in South Africa to hold the manufacturing rights and quality control over our military vehicles, BAE Systems–Land Systems (the former OMC), who have been left completely out of the loop in these agreements, we also have no guarantee as to external (or any) quality control regarding the vehicles that are fixed.

Rightly, one should be concerned about the serviceability and dependability of these vehicles, once they are deployed in operations. After all, our own soldiers’ lives are at stake. Will these same Cuban military mechanics be with our soldiers once their vehicles break down during operations? Or will we fall back on our own mechanics whom we have already shunned? How does the SANDF’s story that the Cuban deal ‘builds capacity’ gel with the fact that in two years’ time they will be gone and the SANDF will still not have enough mechanics?

Incensing to the ordinary SANDF soldier, more specifically the qualified SANDF mechanics, is the notion that, according to Rapport (which was confirmed to me personally by a senior ranking SANDF officer), the Cuban personnel receive a $100 daily allowance from the SANDF budget. This is in addition to the fact that the Cubans have been given double rooms within military quarters, furnished with flat screen TVs and other furniture at the South African taxpayer’s expense, while we also pay for their most senior officers to stay in guesthouses. (Is the R250m starting to add up yet?)

All this occurs while the ordinary qualified mechanic within the SANDF earns less than R400 per day as a salary, and has been at loggerheads with the SANDF for years now for its failure to pay all mechanics their rightful technical allowances. Not to mention the fact that grievances and disputes on soldiers’ transfers have proliferated, as there is a severe shortage of military housing.

Even if the SANDF would tell one that it has a severe shortage in qualified artisans, one has to ask what has become of the 25,000 high school recruits over the past eight years who were drawn to the SANDF with promises of careers. What does that make of the multi-million rand SANDF Works Regiment established six years ago to “train and capacitate soldiers as artisans”?

How does this country justify spending R250m on a questionable deal when it could have used the same money to train at least 200 SANDF mechanics?

Similar to the Department of Water and Sanitation’s poor justification for their Cuban exploit, the SANDF leadership now suffers from the same hangover caused by Cuban cigar smoke and mirrors. The conclusion is inescapable that like a father financially neglecting and abusing his children to impress his drinking buddy, the SA government is neglecting and abusing its engineers, its soldiers and ultimately its people in a misplaced combination of nostalgia and immoral support to the Cuban regime.

It’s said that if one doth protest too much, one exposes a guilty conscience. The enquiries Rapport sent to the SANDF were on valid topics of financial, managerial and military prudence. If the SANDF Cuban deal were above board, one would have expected a mature and well-reasoned response and explanation from the SANDF. Instead the response was clouded in evasion and bluntly, if not rudely, ended off with (more or less): ‘If anyone has a problem with our Cuban deal, they can go jump into a lake’. So much for leadership and accountability to the ordinary citizens of South Africa. DM

  • Pikkie Greeff
    pikkie-greeff.jpg
    Pikkie Greeff

    Pikkie Greeff joined SANDF in 1993 as law officer in prosecution and later Defence counsel. He was admitted as advocate to High Court in 1997. He started at SA National Defence Union (SANDU) in 1999 as chief legal advisor, and was appointed as SANDU National Secretary in 2008.

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