Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
WESSELS, André. The South African Navy's so-called controversial new frigates: Their first decade of service, 2004-2014. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2015, vol.55, n.2, pp. 270-288. ISSN 2224-7912. http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2015/V55N2A8.
Not many South Africans appreciate the fact that South Africa is a maritime country. Consequently, it is no surprise that naval history, including the history of the South African (SA) Navy, is a neglected topic, especially in academic circles. And when, in 1998, the South African government decided to approve an arms package (arms deal) for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) - which included the acquisition of three submarines and four frigates for the SA Navy - many people questioned the need for new weaponry. The allegations of irregularities and corruption with regard to the arms deal, have added fuel to the fire, and the official enquiry continues to this day (2015). This article focuses on the history of the four "Valour" class frigates that were acquired by the SA Navy as part of the arms deal. Proceeding from the assumption that a littoral country, such as South Africa, with a coastline of some 2 800 km, and with the strategic Cape sea-route on its doorstep, should at least have four frigates in its navy, the purpose of this article is to provide a review and an analysis of the first ten years of service (i.e. from 2004 to 2014) of the "Valour" class frigates in the SA Navy. The acquisition of these four frigates is placed in historical perspective by briefly looking at the history of South Africa's naval forces and the role frigates have played in its past, followed by a discussion of the rationale behind the decision to order four German-designed Meko A-200frigates. Some of the questions that are posed (and discussed), include the following: To what extent have the "Valour" class frigates enabled the SA Navy to take its diplomatic role to another level of excellence? What other functions have these frigates fulfilled in the first decade of their existence? How successful have the ships been in the SA Navy service? Was the acquisition of the frigates really as controversial as some commentators would have it? South Africa's naval forces were established in 1922, but the country acquired its first frigates (three British "Loch" class ships) as late as 1944-1945; i.e. shortly before the end of the Second World War. They were followed by the acquisition of a single British Type 15 frigate (SAS Vrystaat) in 1956. These frigates served the SA Navy with distinction until the early 1960s, when they were replaced by three modern British-built Type 12 frigates. The last Type 12 frigate was withdrawn from service in 1985, and for the next two decades, the SA Navy had to make do without the services of frigate-size combat vessels. Since the late 1960s there have been several attempts to acquire new frigates, but South Africa's growing international isolation (a result of the South African government's policy of apartheid), put paid to all these efforts. However, the dawning of the new truly democratic South Africa in 1994, opened up many new opportunities for the country, including the possibility of buying military hardware abroad. In 1999 a contract was signed with a consortium to build four ultra-modern Meko A-200 frigates for the SA Navy. The ships were laid down at two German shipyards in 2001-2002, launched in 2002-2003, and arrived in Simon's Town in 2003-2004, where their combat suites and weaponry were fitted. Eventually, in 2006-2007, all four ships were commissioned as fully-operational frigates of the SA Navy. Even before being formally commissioned, the ships visited South African ports so that the public could see for themselves on what their income-tax money had been spent and soon the ships would take part in many other activities. In South African waters, the "Valour" class frigates have taken part in joint exercises with visiting warships from countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, India, the United States of America and France. As grey diplomats, the SA Navy frigates have also been deployed on several flag-showing cruises, which have taken them to many countries, including those in Africa, in South America and in the Far East (for example the People's Republic of China and Vietnam), as well as the United Kingdom. While showing the flag abroad, the ships have also taken part in joint naval exercises. Since the beginning of 2011 all four of the "Valour" class frigates have also taken turns to participate in counter-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel (Operation Copper). From time to time, the ships have fulfilled ceremonial functions (for example in fleet reviews), taken part in search-and-rescue operations, and acted as guardships during the 2010 FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament. This article clearly indicates that, notwithstanding the controversies surrounding the acquisition process, the SA Navy's four "Valour" class frigates have served the Navy, as well as the SANDF, the country and its people, very well in the years 2004-2014. Thanks to the dedication and professionalism of their commanding officers and crews, they have indeed lived up to expectations. With these frigates in its inventory, the SA Navy has regained its blue-water status, can project power as never before, and can take part in naval exercises with pride and confidence. The SA Navy cannot afford not to have these ships.
Keywords : South African National Defence Force; South African Navy; warships; frigates; history; arms deal; naval diplomacy; grey diplomats; transformation; post-1994 South Africa.