The South African Police Service in the Eastern Cape have had their wings clipped, with no air support at all, as their helicopters are grounded, thus severely restricting their ability in fighting crime.

ZS-RPA seen in happier times. Pic Julian Smith.

Four helicopters were assigned to fighting crime and assisting the SAPS in the Eastern Cape. Criminals used to live in fear of the sound of helicopters overhead and with their searchlights at night.

Gang violence, stock theft and murder need to be curtailed in the Eastern Cape and eyes in the sky play a key role in doing just that. However, this is currently not possible.

In response to a parliamentary question, the Community Safety MEC, Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, said that of the helicopters allocated to the Eastern Cape, none are currently operational.

In December 2020, the last helicopter was grounded as it was due to be serviced. One has been out of operations for more than two and a half years, and another for one year and nine months.

In the 1990s, there were three helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft operational based in Port Elizabeth, Mthatha and East London.

Helicopters play a critical role in the deployment of rapid response forces, tracking of criminals, assisting in fire-fighting, search and rescue, and acting as a deterrent to criminals.

In her written reply, Tikana Gxothiwe said that the H125 Squirrel, ZS-RDH was sent in for its 12 year midlife service on September 2018 and would be operational on April 1st.

The second helicopter, a R44, ZS-RLD was booked in for inspection on July 12th, 2019, and would resume service in July 2022.

The other H125 Squirrel, ZS-RPA was involved in a force landing accident in November last year resulting in damage to its engine.

The fourth helicopter, another R44, ZS-RKN has been waiting a service since December 2020, and would only be returned to service in July 2022.

The question is why does it take so long to return the SAPS helicopters to service, and secondly, where is the responsible management to enable co-ordination in keeping two or at least one helicopter available at all times?

“In a capable state, it cannot take two and a half years to fix a helicopter when we have an average of 13 people being murdered every day in this province,” said DA MPL Bobby Stevenson.

“It is not acceptable,” said Popcru provincial secretary Zamikhaya Sikade.

Five of the top 10 stations in South Africa for stock theft are in the Eastern Cape, and helicopters usually assist in fighting against this problem.

Helicopters also assist in responding to farm murders, and tracking down criminals as they try to flee from the scene.

Helicopters are also necessary to help fight against gang violence, drug smuggling in and around our seashores and many other crimes. Both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft could also be used to combat the escalating truck hijackings in the Eastern Cape, where in the last three months, 43 trucks were hijacked.

These helicopters need to be rapidly brought back into operations.

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