SANDF military exercise Mafadi VIII tests brains and brawn of personnel

Officers and members of the SANDF’s the military legal services division make their way down the snow-capped slope after summit Mafadi, South Africa’s highest peak. Picture: Supplied

Officers and members of the SANDF’s the military legal services division make their way down the snow-capped slope after summit Mafadi, South Africa’s highest peak. Picture: Supplied

Published Aug 24, 2023


By Major General Eric Mnisi

It does not matter how you serve your country in the South African National Defence Force; the bottom line is that you are a trained soldier first and your speciality comes second. It’s a doctrine that is applied to the letter and the spirit at the SANDF’s Defence Legal Services Division.

Almost 13 years ago, the then Chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke, issued an instruction through the Military Command Council, that the division had to be remilitarised. Staffed by legal specialists, the general belief in the defence force was that the division might have been adept at law but had lost its way militarily.

Anyone who has ever served will know how dangerous that kind of perception can be up and down the chain of command. One way of changing that has been the development and implementation of an annual military exercise that blends the cerebral demands of the profession with the rigours of the field, culminating in the successful ascent of South Africa’s highest point, the 3 450m Mafadi in the picturesque though incredibly tough Drakensberg mountain range in KwaZulu Natal.

It is a very tough ask, the practical side almost pipped by the theoretical aspect of the exercise. Before the 87 members of the division even got to the Drakensberg they had to complete a raft of planning tasks, with a Command Post Exercise that drew in some of the most senior members of the other arms of service, including the chief of staff of the South African Defence College and the commandant of the War College and even Dr Emmanuel Maphosa from the International Committee for the Red Cross, all of whom together with me formed the “National Security Council” to whom their plans had to be presented.

The pursuit of military law in the modern era has moved very far beyond prosecuting and defending members of the SANDF for infractions of the military disciplinary code. Today military law officers have to be able to assist everyone from tactical commanders in the field with interpretations around the rules of engagement to being able to brief South Africa’s military command council on the legal frameworks around protecting and securing the country’s national interests; from our territorial sovereignty to the security of our water, energy and region as well as using the correct instruments of statecraft to achieve this.

In this instance, the case study was a fictional island country in the southern Indian Ocean called the Republic of Bakuba, which was beset by internal violence and illegal mining and facing the secession of two of its provinces. There were three groups; one from Bakuba, another from the Republic of Sunderland which had been called to intervene and a Quick Reaction Force. For the command post exercise (CPX) the groups had to present their political objectives and end state to resolve the crisis to get permission from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to contribute troops, before drilling down and drawing up an operational plan to be approved by the SANDF’s Joint Operations Division.

Once all the approvals had been acquired, the CPX transitioned to a field exercise, with the summit of Mafadi becoming the Bakuba International Airport for the purpose of the exercise. The QRF, made up of members of the Defence Legal Services Division who were all parachute qualified were tasked with climbing to the top via the Injisuthi route, but with only three days to complete it. The other two cohorts summited via Leslie’s Pass over four days. The QRF secured the summit on the evening July 1t, handing it over to the other two groups from the notional Sunderland and Bakuba Defence Forces the next day.

It is an unashamedly tough exercise that is designed to create military law officers than work under arduous field conditions at all levels of command from young lieutenants all the way to major generals. Five of our young lawyers from the two-year Military Skills Development System (MSDS) were part of this exercise too, one of them a woman officer. We had specifically taken them to the Drakensberg to help them prepare for their own parachute selection course in Bloemfontein next month, by toughening them up.

They made it to the top, the hard way. So did more than 80 other members of the division under the watchful eyes of the specialist operational medical orderlies from 7 Medical Battalion. In the process, all of them conquered their personal fears on the mountain, they were tested under exceptionally tough operational conditions; as lawyers and as military leaders and they emerged with flying colours, proven and ready for deployment both within South Africa or anywhere on the continent as peacekeepers or peacemakers in combat situations.

The MSDS officers are the fourth generation of military law officers to undergo this exercise which has become an indispensable initiative for a professional skillset that is integral to the conduct of any legal and ethical military deployment anywhere in the world. The SANF’s military legal officers are able to help their commanders plan for war, make war and fight war.

The men and women who completed ex MAFADI VIII (2023) summited both the mountains in their minds and beneath their feet, while earning the hard-won respect of their peers and commanders in other arms. And no sooner had they returned to their parent units after the exercise than the planning began for Ex MAFADI IX (2024), for as every professional soldier knows, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and if you want peace, you have to prepare for war.

The SANDF’s Defence Legal Services Division is no exception to the rule – it cannot be.

* Major General Eric Z Mnisi is Adjutant General of the SANDF and acting head of the Defence Legal Services Division.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.