On Misinformation Patience and Grace.

Darren Olivier

It has become a running joke that the general public, and much of the media, will always assume the worst of the South African Air Force (SAAF), and of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) as a whole. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is a view commonly expressed in the force, along with a bemused questioning of whether anything they do will be sufficient to earn the public’s approval.

Photos and videos of entirely routine training activities are frequently taken out of context and reinterpreted in the most uncharitable, cynical, and negative ways. Accidents, which are an unfortunate reality in any air force, are elevated to apparently catastrophic evidence of an inability to operate safely. In other cases, claims about what’s happening are invented out of thin air, yet always with an underlying message of incompetence and somehow still widely believed.

All too often, all of this is also accompanied by some level of racism by dinosaurs who have never let go of their prejudices, though that is by no means the only factor.

Whether the ‘Mabena’ meme, low-wit jokes about the SAAF running out of fuel or planes being stolen, or worse the outright mockery of air crew involved in accidents, much of the public and a fair portion of the media have allowed themselves to adopt a cruel and twisted cynicism, one devoid of empathy or common humanity.

When a military helicopter crashes in much of the world, for instance, the general reaction is one of sombre sadness and serious toned-down reporting. In South Africa it’s all too often a weird form of glee from the public, a sick and twisted revelling in bad news beyond what’s justified, fed all too often by sensationalist reporting in the media.

Proposals for the acquisition of desperately needed new transport aircraft or helicopters are broadly condemned as a waste of money and have little public support, even though each time there’s a disaster the question becomes why the SAAF wasn’t doing more.

How did we get here? When did we decide that our justified anger at the mismanagement of our country should be redirected at the soldiers, air and ground crew, sailors, medics, civil servants, and others who staff our key institutions like the SANDF, and that they’re undeserving of understanding, respect, or empathy?

This is not to say, of course, that the SAAF and SANDF should be above criticism, or that they don’t have their fair share of stupid and condemnable actions. There have after all been plenty of mistakes, too many instances of corruption, and much poor decision-making that are all worth strongly criticising the senior leadership for. We should always hold these institutions up to the highest level of standards and expectations, and when criticism is due we should not hold back. That’s necessary if we’re to have accountability.

But the extent of the general public and media’s cynicism has tipped too far in the opposite direction. It continually hurts the morale of those in the SAAF and SANDF who are doing their best under trying circumstances and it creates an environment where successes can’t be recognised and encouraged.

That’s unhealthy for the SAAF, harmful for civil-military relations in general, and harmful for the country over the long run.

It’s time for a serious rethink of the SAAF and SANDF’s role in society and of the way each of the public, the SANDF, and the media view each other.

First, it’s time for some pragmatism about what’s actually possible for a force with the level of funding the SAAF receives. The days of the huge defence budgets of the 1980s are long gone and weren’t sustainable or affordable back then either, so any comparisons with the SAAF of that era in terms of operating tempo, number of aircraft and flying hours are as nonsensical as other wartime to peacetime comparisons.

Today’s SAAF receives just R7 billion or so a year, which may seem like a large amount but is substantially lower in real terms than it was in the early 1990s. In fact, when adjusting for both the rate of inflation and exchange rate changes, the current SAAF budget should probably be around R30 billion to achieve the same buying power as the SAAF’s budget in 1993. And that was already a more than 50% cut from the SAAF’s budget in 1991/1992, itself a cut from 1989/1990.

The current level of funding has been too low for too long to sustain many capabilities, and without an urgent intervention entire fleets and types will have to be retired. It’s really important for the public and media to have a realistic understanding of not only what the current force can do, but what would be reasonably possible with a more suitable level of spending. It will never get back to the same level as the 1980s, and if we allow people to believe that’s the point of comparison then even outsized success will be misinterpreted as failure.

This doesn’t mean accepting poor performance, being happy with mediocrity, or accepting a hollowed out force. On the contrary, it’s only by having an accurate understanding of what the current situation is and what’s possible, that you can hold the government properly accountable for long enough to force real change.

Informed and focused criticism will always beat angry and misdirected cynicism.

Second, the SAAF, and SANDF as a whole, must understand that they need, not only the support of the public and the media, but they need to constantly educate them so that they understand what the force does, and how it does it. So that they become immune to misinformation about the force, are more aware of what it can do, and what it can’t do, and why. And most importantly, so that they come to trust in the SAAF as an organisation.

That’s going to require a complete change in the way the force treats the public and media, moving from a stance of secret-by-default and over-classifying everything to one that’s painfully and awkwardly open and transparent. It will mean letting the public and media see not just the carefully prepared and stage-managed face shown at air shows or in official PR material, but also the ugly side. The decay, the painful realities, and the real face of a force struggling to keep going despite a ludicrously underfunded budget.

It will also mean being far more proactive in responding to viral social media misinformation or misunderstandings, and in publishing many more stories, photos, and videos of the force doing its daily work such as helicopter, transport, or fighter aircraft flights to get the public used to what the force does on a regular basis.

Third, it’s going to require enough of us being willing to self-reflect on our prejudices, lost empathy, and cynicism, and then committing to be more empathetic, informed, understanding, patient, and respectful toward our armed forces personnel in future.

While not all of those in the SAAF and SANDF are deserving of it, there are so many who break their backs and burn themselves out trying to keep things running smoothly despite all the problems. Every time we call on the SAAF, whether for disaster response, or search and rescue, or anything else, those personnel move heaven and earth to provide the air crew, aircraft, and other resources needed to get the job done.

If we want those types of people to stay in the force and feel rewarded and appreciated, then we as the public need to start recognising them for it.

When the SAAF has a crash the criticism is often unreasonable. Image- Deaan Vivier

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