It’s election season in South Africa again as the country prepares to vote in local government polls, which means that most political parties are either making grandiose promises or accusing their opponents of heinous failures. Sometimes some of it might even be true.

IT’S IN THIS CONTEXT that there have been renewed calls to shut down Air Force Base Ysterplaat and use the land for low-cost housing, along with two other military bases in Cape Town, Wingfield and Youngsfield. While it’s an idea that has been raised a number of times over the years, both by politicians and civil society organisations, this year it has become a main point of contention and differentiation between the Democratic Alliance’s mayoral candidate for Cape Town and the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure.

On the face of it, it’s not the most unreasonable idea. Ysterplaat, Wingfield, and Youngsfield are ideally located, the latter two are mostly unused, and it might be possible to fit tens of thousands of houses on all three sites depending on how densely they’re built.

Ysterplaat alone may accommodate up to 18,000 houses, and its location in Milnerton means it’s close to most jobs in the city, making it quite attractive for those looking to improve both the housing supply and reduce unequal spatial development.

However, none of the plans and proposals put forward by any of the politicians, ministers, or NGOs take into account the military value of Ysterplaat in particular, or care about the impact on military capabilities, or have a viable plan for who will cover the costs of emptying and rehabilitating the sites. All assume that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will simply absorb the cost of relocating its units at the three bases elsewhere, as well as any associated rehabilitation. For reasons I’ll explain, that’s simply not realistic.

AFB Ysterplaat’s existence dates from 1917, when Maitland Aerodrome was tentatively established with a single building and grass runway. By the mid 1920s it was in regular use by both the SA Air Force, which used it as one of the stops in its Diamond Mail Service, and Union Airways before it moved its operations to Wingfield in 1931.

Within a few years the airfield was renamed Brooklyn Aerodrome, though it still relied on a grass field rather than proper runways and was home to only a single enclosed building and one lean-to hangar. In 1938 the Air Force selected it as the site of a new training programme, awarding African Air Transport a contract for 100 student pilots, but it was the advent of the Second World War in 1939 that was to lead to the base becoming the entity we know of today.

The Google Earth image of Ysterplaat showing the pressure of urban development around it.

By late 1942 what was then termed Air Force Station Brooklyn had gone through a massive expansion with the construction of two graded, levelled, and drained grass runways, a 730 m long paved runway, 25 hangars, workshops, accommodation for up to 1 600 people, radio equipment, and a new control tower. As part of this expansion the government needed to acquire land owned by the Graaffs Trust, which made it available under a restrictive clause that limited its use to aviation or military purposes only. If it’s used for any other purpose or sold, the Trust has pre-emptive rights to take back control of the property.

AFS Brooklyn played a key role during the war as an assembly and flight-testing hub for aircraft being shipped by sea to the port of Cape Town, with over 730 aircraft assembled and test flown by the station’s No. 9 Air Depot and No. 3 Air Depot including Harvards, Oxfords, Masters, Ansons, Baltimores, Beauforts, Kittyhawks and Hurricanes. The first jet fighter in South Africa, a Gloster Meteor III, was assembled and first flown at the station in 1946, and it was also the site where the SA Air Force’s first operational jet fighters (Vampire FB Mk.5s) were assembled and test flown in 1950.

With the Second World War’s end the station’s role had shifted to a more traditional role, playing host to training units, maintenance depots, maritime patrol, transport, and fighter squadrons. In 1949 the station’s name was changed to Air Force Station Ysterplaat.

After further expansions, including the lengthening of runway 02/20 to 1 500 m and the acquisition of additional land from SA Railways, Ysterplaat was upgraded to a full Air Force Base.

‘the Graaffs Trust restrictive clause’

In 2001, the base survived the Base Reallocation and Closing (BRAC) process. Initially, the Air Force planned to shut it down and move its constituent units to AFB Langebaanweg and Cape Town International Airport, but it soon realised that not only was the cost prohibitive, but the Graaffs Trust’s restrictive clause on a big portion of the base made its reuse problematic.

Under the original plan, the small Air Force facility at Cape Town International Airport which had once played host to 35 Squadron’s Shackletons was to be upgraded into Air Force Station Cape Town and 22 and 35 Squadrons would have relocated there permanently along with the security and reserve squadron. 2 Air Servicing Unit (Detached) and 80 Air Navigation School would have relocated to Air Force Base Langebaanweg.

However, after further investigation, it became clear that the power supply at Langebaanweg was insufficient for 2 ASU’s workshops to be relocated from Ysterplaat and would require a costly upgrade, while the cost of establishing AFS Cape Town was also far higher than initially anticipated. Both pushed the budget beyond what the SA Air Force could afford and eclipsed the projected savings from closing down Ysterplaat, so the process was halted.

A few years later the SAAF attempted to establish a public-private partnership that would turn Ysterplaat into a civil airport as well as being a military base, similar to what was done with AFB Hoedspruit / Eastgate Airport. However, this too failed as the Air Force could not attract private investors.

Today, Ysterplaat remains a fully fledged base and home to 22 and 35 Squadrons, 2 ASU (Detached), 110 Squadron, 505 Squadron, 80 Air Navigation School, and a branch of the SAAF Museum.

But the possibility of relocating from Ysterplaat has only become more impossible in the years since the BRAC process in 2001. Not only does the Air Force have a much smaller budget than it did then, thanks to two decades of sharp cuts in real terms, but with ACSA’s plans to expand Cape Town International Airport, there’s no longer any available space to establish an Air Force Station there either. That means that AFB Langebaanweg and AFB Overberg are now the only options for relocation, with an impact on costs, accommodation needs, and the flying time as both bases are over 100 km away from Cape Town and Simon’s Town.

‘Ysterplaat is well-placed for low-cost housing’

As last month’s column explained, the Air Force is in dire straits and running on fumes, with its budget now so far behind its needs that aircraft are being cannibalised of parts to keep others flying, and training, exercises, and operations have been drastically curtailed. If it’s forced to absorb the cost of closing down Ysterplaat the impact will be catastrophic: Because relocation is now unaffordable without external funding, all the units at Ysterplaat would have to be closed permanently even as their personnel remain on the payroll because contracts can’t simply be cancelled. That would mean the loss of the Air Force’s entire maritime surveillance capability (however small it is), the retirement of the SuperLynx helicopters for the SA Navy’s frigates, and the end of the Air Force’s ability to provide any search and rescue or firefighting services in the Western Cape. Shutting 2 ASU’s workshops would be another severe blow.

Worse yet would be if the SAAF is saddled with the cost to rehabilitate the site, as is often required of exiting tenants in cases like these. Over the decades a great deal of fuel and other chemicals have leaked into the soil, requiring extensive work to return the ground to a safe enough condition for regular civilian housing. If that happens the entire force could be crippled for years.

Yet none of that has stopped the key players in this saga from demanding that the Air Force cover all the costs. When I asked the DA’s mayoral candidate for Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, what the party’s proposal was on which entity would pay for the relocation from Ysterplaat, his response was:

“The costs of relocation must be borne by the tenant. Also not very difficult given the surfeit of military facilities in the city, a state owned commercial airport, with another massive piece of Denel land adjacent to it, and another air force base just up the coast.”

And in response to being told that there were, in fact, no readily-available alternatives:

“We have 5 massive pieces of military or Denel land in one city! And an air force base just up the coast at Langebaanweg (and another at Bredasdorp). …There are easy and plentiful alternatives. A surfeit, in fact!”

It’s disappointing that so many years after this proposal was first mooted, none of those proposing the base’s re-use for low-cost housing have developed their plans any further than a naïve assumption that the Air Force cover all associated relocation costs. Nor has an adequate answer ever been given for how the Graaffs Trust’s pre-emptive rights will be navigated and what the Trust’s intentions are, but that’s another story.

Clearly, there is a real need for low-cost housing in Cape Town, and Ysterplaat is indeed well-placed to be reused. But this can’t be allowed to happen if it’s going to have such a dire impact on defence capabilities in the region.

The right approach, therefore, to reusing Ysterplaat would be for the Department of Public Works & Infrastructure and the Department of Housing, perhaps along with the relevant provincial and local government, to provide the funding to relocate the Air Force’s units elsewhere. Ideally that would also include requiring ACSA to include provision for an Air Force Station housing 22 and 35 Squadrons in its expansion plans for Cape Town International Airport, again perhaps with funding from other departments. Policy is, and always will be, difficult. Unlike the promises of politicians, it requires consideration of real trade-offs, compromises, and second and third order consequences of decisions made. We must therefore hold our politicians to account, forcing them to flesh out their proposals, to ensure that the easy promises of today don’t become the bad policy of tomorrow.

Nearby Wingfield air base is now derelict.

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