By ROD AMNER and SIYAMTHANDA PONGCO
At least three civilians were killed and two others injured in three separate incidents between November 2005 and March 2021 after military weapons scavenged from the unfenced 6 SA Infantry Battalion (6 SAI Bn) training ground detonated in local residential areas.
When Grocott’s Mail recently visited the training ground beyond Burnt Kraal, the boundary fence was still in tatters, and ‘warning signs’ prohibiting access to the area had been wrenched from posts and were lying against fences or obscured by thick bush. Residents can easily access it.
Last year, four survivors of bomb blasts linked to explosive devices picked up at the base’s 7 000 hectare training ground told News24 they had pleaded with the Defence Department to secure the base and restrict access to the public as an urgent safety precaution to prevent more fatalities.
In answer to a question from the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Annette Steyn in Parliament last year, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans at the time, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, said the eastern part of the fence of the 6 SAI Bn training area is absent “as it has been stolen”.
eNkanini residents have almost unfettered access to the base training area to collect ‘scrap metal’, including unexploded military artillery (ordnance). And farmers have complained of stock theft and illegal wildlife poaching.
The fencing, poles and gates have all been stripped and stolen by locals after soldiers stopped patrolling the boundary fence.
Mapisa-Nqakula told Parliament a project had been registered and sent out for tender via the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI), but the process was placed on hold by DPWI due to “insufficient funding”.
She said the SANDF was aware of complaints by farmers adjacent to the 6 SAI Bn training area, exacerbated by the absence of a perimeter fence.
“The Defence Works Formation is coordinating the restoration of the absent perimeter fence with the provincial Department of Public Works and Infrastructure on behalf of the Department of Defence.”
“Static and roving guards from 6 SAI Bn are in place and patrolling the vast training area,” she added.
No comment from the SANDF
Grocott’s Mail visited 6 SAI Bn media liaison Lieutenant Phathani three months ago for comment on several issues, including the stolen perimeter fence. We were instructed to write a formal letter to the national Department of Defence asking for responses to our questions. We sent this letter through Lt Phathani. The letter has not been answered to date, and several efforts to contact Phathani failed.
Last week, we emailed a second letter to Brigadier General Andries Mokoena Mahapa, director of Defence Corporate Communications. The letter and a voice message went unanswered.
Three were killed – including a five-year-old – in a 2005 mortar explosion
On 27 June 2005, Justin Martin, 52, Johannes Hansie Kortrooi, 58, and five-year-old Leonardo Lottering were killed after a 60-millimetre mortar bomb detonated in Ghost Town. The mortar was picked up on the grounds of the unfenced, restricted army training ground.
The latest explosion in March 2021
The latest blast occurred in March last year when scrap metal collector Xolani Magaba, 33, nearly lost his legs after a hand grenade he picked up at the training terrain detonated at his home. Magaba is now using crutches to walk.
The explosion rocked the eNkanini informal settlement on the northeast margin of Makhanda. It blew a bag of scrap metal to pieces, threw the Magaba five metres across the veld and left him with one broken leg and both legs full of shrapnel.
Magaba said he went to the army training area looking for scrap metals when he came across an abandoned backpack filled with hand grenades.
“I think someone was distracted and decided to dump that backpack. I took it home with me as I planned to sell the grenades at a local scrap dealer the following day. As I was throwing the bag outside my door, I heard an explosion,” Magaba told News24’s Malibongwe Dayimani.
Magaba said officers from the SAPS Explosive Unit informed him that there were over 180 grenades in the backpack, and 27 of those were still live.
The 2018 explosion
In 2018, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula was forced by the courts to pay 24-year-old Arnold Plaatjies R1.3m in compensation after he lost his left eye in one of the blasts.
Nqakula accepted responsibility, as the bomb was picked up in the unfenced and unpatrolled training area, which locals have been using to look for metal, hunt and poach game, and herd their cattle.
Plaatjies was playing with other children in front of his home on Bowker Street in Ghost Town when the explosion went off. The then 7-year-old Plaatjies spent more than two months in hospital and now has an artificial eye.
The parliamentary debate on 27 September
In a parliamentary debate on revising regulations protecting military areas against trespassing in September this year, Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader Pieter Groenewald told Parliament the Government only has itself to blame for “invasions” of military facilities and land.
In a statement issued after the parliamentary debate, Groenewald said, “The occupancy of military land not only creates problems for the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). It also poses serious risks for the illegal occupants.”
Referencing incidents in Makhanda, he said there are “vast areas” of South Africa where the military practices and trains with live ammunition. Not all of it detonates, and, despite warning signs of unexploded ordnance, people primarily searching for scrap metal wander freely about.
“The major question is: How to end it? It has to be answered by President Cyril Ramaphosa, also SANDF Commander-in-Chief,” Groenewald said, adding the South African first citizen is on record as saying no one has the right to unlawfully access and occupy land – it is against the law.
“The issue can only be resolved with enough political will to take the necessary action, but that will is absent. The blame rests squarely on the President’s shoulders. As Commander in Chief and President, he is allowing the unlawful occupation of military and private land to continue with impunity,” Groenewald said.
One of our (unanswered) letters to the SANDF
To: Brigadier General Andries Mokoena Mahapa, Director of Defence Corporate Communication
RE: Queries about fencing at the 6SAI Battalion in Makhanda
Dear Brigadier General,
I am Rod Amner, editor of Grocott’s Mail, Makhanda’s community newspaper.
My newspaper would like information about the lack of fencing on the eastern side of the 6SAI Battalion base in Makhanda.
We understand from queries in Parliament that the fencing has been stolen. Signage has also been damaged or destroyed.
At least three civilians have already been killed, and four others injured in three incidents between November 2005 and March 2021 when mortars and grenades scavenged from the unfenced 6 SA Infantry Battalion (6 SAI Bn) training ground detonated.
Local farmers report that the lack of fencing affects stock theft and illegal poaching.
What is being done to secure the perimeter of the base? Why has it not been secured for so long?
What threat does the lack of fencing pose to the military base?
Furthermore, there have been concerns about military personnel driving under the influence of alcohol in the town, posing a danger to civilians and the lives of military personnel. For example, we understand that a 6SAI member driving under the influence of alcohol died in a motor vehicle accident close to the base in August.
Lastly, we would like to appeal for better communication and understanding between the residents of Makhanda, the 6SAI Battalion, and our newspaper.
Thank you, and kind regards,
Grocott’s Mail editor