Publication: Stephen Goodson Issued: Date: 2010-11-01 Reporter: Stephen Goodson

The Sinking of the South African Navy



Stephen Goodson

Date 2010-11-01
Reporter Stephen Goodson

The South African Navy was formed on 1 April 1922 after the amalgamation of seven Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve units.

In World War II it was first known as the Seaward Defence Force, and on 1 August 1942 evolved into the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The SANF was responsible for operating minesweepers, anti-submarine services, patrolling of port entrances, and the escorting of convoys. South Africa's sailors were as good as the finest in the world and established a proud fighting tradition.

In 1951 the SANF became the South African Navy (SAN), and on 1 April 1957 it acquired the naval dockyard at Simon's Town from the Royal Navy (RN). It continued to maintain links through joint manoeuvres with the RN and the very high standards it had inherited from the latter navy.

High standards

Although hindered by sanctions from 1975 onwards, it remained one of the elite small navies of the world, and was able to compete with the best in terms of advanced weapons systems. In April 1994, after the white government had capitulated to the African National Congress (ANC), a decision was made to replace the ageing fleet with four patrol corvettes and three Class 209 submarines. Although a Spanish consortium had tendered to supply more versatile corvettes at a lower price than the R6-bn asked by the German shipbuilding firm of Blohm & Voss for each corvette, the Germans were awarded the contract. It later transpired that this higher, inflated price had been needed in order to accommodate the bribes and commissions paid to ANC cabinet ministers and their cohorts.

The ships were delivered, after having followed all standard operating procedures, from October 2005 onwards.

Affirmative action

However, the following year a transformation/affirmative action programme was introduced, which in the first phase resulted in the forced retirement, with the aid of financial packages, of 384 highly skilled artisans and technicians. Many of these servicemen had over 20 years of experience, and the transfer of on-the-job skills came to a halt.

New recruits were sent to Kiel, Germany, in order to obtain diving certificates for the submarines, but they were found not to have the capacity to complete the course. Later they were sent to India in the hope that, being a Third World country, it might be more lenient. The Indian Navy, to its credit, also found them to be incapable of completing the minesweepers, patrolling, escorting course. Thus the submarines, which have highly advanced and sophisticated systems on board, can only be used on the surface and not for the purpose for which they were intended.

Nine months ago, disaster struck when an unsupervised, unskilled seaman connected one of the submarines to a 440 volt power supply. As the submarines use 110 volts, the computers and the entire internal circuitry, which consists of tens of kilometres of wiring, were blown up. Due to budgetary constraints, it has still not been decided whether to tow the submarine back to Germany or to bring in outside experts. It may well be more prudent to leave the hulk as it is, because it is unlikely ever to operate below the sea surface as a submarine.

One of the key aspects of the navy is maintenance; notwithstanding the fact that none of the SAN's ships is operational. According to an engineering firm from Paarden Eiland, Cape Town, the only maintenance taking place is on the generators, providing power for the galleys of the corvettes, so that the officers can enjoy a warm midday meal. In November 2009, the United States Navy (USN) requested that a joint exercise take place with the SAN. This was not a typical exercise in which live ammunition was used, but simply a sailing trip. In order to get the SAN's ships to sea, it was necessary to call up a large number of retired naval reserve officers and engineers. After the "exercise", the USN set up a register in San Diego, California so that in the event of an international emergency occurring in the South Atlantic, these retired officers and engineers could be called up. An MK 'Comrade' running the SAN Currently, morale in the SAN is very low. There is no discipline and the few remaining white officers are frequently absent on 'stress' leave. Although 20% of annual recruits may be white, very few apply because of the very low training standards.

The Chief of the Navy is Vice Admiral J Mudimu, a former member of the liberation army, Umkhonto We Sizwe. He boasts an impressive array of qualifications, but they do not include a certificate of seamanship or a navigation certificate. The official website of the SAN, which contains dated information and links to several blank pages, claims that the core business and mission of the SAN is to fight and win at sea. With its ships being almost permanently moored, and with the lack of any trained crews, this must surely be rated as Mission Impossible.

THE African Union has been holding a security summit in Uganda. The Somali Foreign Minister pleaded on camera for South Africa to help patrol the Indian Ocean along the East Coast of Africa to combat the ongoing piracy there. [SABC news bulletin] There was an awkward diplomatic silence from SA's leaders, knowing that SA's vessels are incapable of putting out to sea; and fearing that their untrained crews might land up as further trophies of the Somali pirates, like the other 20 ships (plus 400 men) held captive in secret coves along the wild Somali coast.


A follow-up to the ‘ Navy short of submarines’ story I blogged about a few days ago…

The Sinking of the South African Navy ­ Stephen Goodson

Posted by: AG Soderlund on November 25th, 2010 at 9:34 am

As confirmed by Janes Defence correspondent, this article is absolute rot and defies any logic. Simple analysis of facts can establish this.

a. ‘The submarines can only be used on the surface’ is utterly devoid of any truth. One is currently in South America where she has been exercising with three navies and would be pointless on the surface. During exercises with USS Los Angeles (SSN) in late 2009 (prob the exercise referred to later) two submarines exercised with them and except for the group photo, all evolutions (with exchanges amongst crews) were submerged. I met the US Captain after the exercise and he expressed surprise at the standard of our crews, pointing out that our boats were amongst the most proficient he had worked with! This was confirmed during a visit by a member of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff!

b. ‘The computers and entire circuitry were blown up and unlikely to ever operate below the sea’ ­ again utterly ridiculous as a German product designed to operate in war and below the sea would NEVER be designed without fuzes and such protection (even brick houses have them!). A number of fuzes and relays were blown ­ lighting and internal systems were restored in a day and other systems tested 10 days later. By the way NO submariner was involved ­ a dockyard worker was connecting the supply and made contact with a 380v terminal in the box ashore ­ so much for unskilled sailor! Either this is a very old article or an indication of very poor research or sources, as even that well-known ‘journal’ the Cape Sun (headlines such as ‘Moffie in Gat Gesteek’) reported this incident in MAY 2008 ­ a lot earlier than 9 months ago!

c. ‘Only generators are maintained to ensure hot meals for officer’ ­ another unbelievable statement as meals are for all and generators are only used at sea which requires all other systems to work. Two frigates carried out all gunnery and other exercises with Indian and Brazilian forces (and two SAN submarines which DIVED ­ believe it or not but two other navies can attest to it!) over three weeks as recently as Sep 2010. During the World cup, three frigates monitored all air and surface traffic off of the three ‘harbour’ venues.

d. The only planned exercises with the USN were those referred to above and OBVIOUSLY no live ammo was used. I should add that the USN CTG of a NATO task force publicly stated that his force had all been ‘sunk’ by one SA submarine and that the SAN ships had fitted in extremely well. This was extensively reported on in national and international media.

e. ‘In order to get to sea, retired reserve officers are called up’ ­ a fascinating statement as only ONE sea-going reserve officer has been called up (a Cdr) and he stood in for one trip as XO and is now with the patrol craft when required. Your ‘sauce’ (NOT a grammar mistake!) leaves a bad taste in the mouth! There is NO WAY that the USN will ever influence the call up of OUR officers ­ we are a not a colony of the US and they know it. To suggest they will call-up means you intimate they will basically ‘hijack’ our ships with our reserve officers!

f. There are very many white officers left and seldom absent. They in fact find it difficult to use up their leave. I know of ONE officer who has had stress and for reasons specific to his case. All the rest serve with pride and dedication. As for the Chief of the Navy not having a navigation certificate ­ so what! He is the ‘CEO’ and works with policy and finance (just as did V Adm Edwards, CNavy from 1980–82 ­ and a good one too!). I doubt whether the CEO of Anglo American ever ran a mine shift! Fleet Command runs the Fleet and brims with experienced seagoing officers.

g. As for the website ­ yes it was neglected (since improved) but is a minor point. I would suggest you arrange a visit to the Navy and relook at the logic in your article as it does not make much sense to the educated person. By the way, SAN members on courses in the USA and UK have an excellent record and in many cases have exceeded expectations of foreign students and come top of course.

Should you require confirmation of these facts, you are welcome to contact me or Helmoed Romer-Heitman, an internationally aclaimed defence specialist, for further details.

Yours sincerely

R Adm (JG) A.G. Soderlund (Ret)
Posted by: Nicholas on November 25th, 2010 at 9:53 am

Good morning R Adm Soderlund,

Thanks for your additional info’ ­ it means a lot coming from someone who served our navy, and will no doubt go some way to restoring the South African navy’s long-tarnished reputation.

A number of points did indeed strike me as odd but unfortunately the bulk of the drivel I came across online in my search to back up my post tended to lean in the article’s favour. Assumption based on the government’s track record with just about everything also didn’t do the article any favours in respect of discrediting it.

At any rate, it’s served for some debate, which is always welcome and healthy.

Cheers, Nic
Posted by: AG Soderlund on November 25th, 2010 at 11:02 am

I apologise for stating that the SSN was USS Los Angeles ­ it was actually USS San Juan of the Los Angeles class.
Posted by: R Adm C H Bennett SAN (Ret) on November 26th, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I am intrigued. Since when has the SA Navy had a ‘tarnished record’? On what do you base this inain comment? Or is it simply a ‘throw away remark’ to keep you in good odour with those ­ like the author of the original article ­ who are terrified that some African State might actually achieve something and so show their crass racism for what it is? I am glad to say that the old European view that any non-European was a sub­species of human kind died with the Nazis. Let us not try and give it any credence now.
Since the beginning of World War II the SAN has been internationally recognised as a small but very effective Navy and this DID NOT CHANGE after 1994.

In the past decade our ships and submarines have exercised with great success with a number of other navies and all of those navies have been very complimentary about what has been achieved since 1994. I am very proud to have served in such a proficient organisation, and I know that there are many others of all colours who feel the same.

I accept that the modern Navy has problems, but what navy doesn’t? Many of these problems are to do with recruiting and retaining the correct quality of people. But it has always been thus, this was the cross I had to carry in the mid 1970s when I was trying to keep at least one out of three frigates operational ­ and in this todays Navy has achieved more than I did.

May I suggest that you do not criticise simply for the sake of criticising but first make a proper study to ensure that you are talking out of the correct orifice and not merely adding to global warming by expelling more methane.
Posted by: Nicholas on November 27th, 2010 at 11:09 am

It seems my comments have been travelling the ‘net…

Firstly, take a good look at the two articles I posted. This blog is currently a non-profit personal hobby ­ that means that I actually have to work elsewhere to survive. The unfortunate side-effect of this is that I do not always have time to properly research backup for what I comment on. The source of your frustration, I’m assuming, is mostly the second article ­ penned by another author ­ which I chose to affix my opinion to.

Secondly, I have two family members who served the SAN for a LONG time. I am not utterly ignorant on it, nor it’s history.

I considered joining the SAN some time back and was faced with the usual problems affecting our dilapidated state ­ the basics including skin colour, money, a fool’s attitude, and so on and so forth. As you might assume, I didn’t join the SAN.

Both of my family members also left due to the declining drop in standards throughout.

I do not subscribe perfect attention to the mass media, but the history of reports detailing staff issues, equipment issues, corruption and the like do not bode well for the SAN’s reputation.

On a side note, where in all of this drivel have you seen a reference to either the article’s author, or my comments, stating that the failings were a matter of race? Delusional or foolish, that is a case of retreat by those who have no real argument.

A comment box is not nearly length enough to discuss such matters, but in short conclusion let me state that to myself, and I’m sure a large part of the population, the SAN’s reputation is indeed tarnished.

Posted by: Robert-John on November 29th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Tarnished indeed. I as a superintendent for a vessel management company, have been using the facilities in Simonstown for the last 15 years, when its available and have noticed a huge decline in the general facility condition and attitudes/disciplines of sailors and workers around the yard.

Once when we had to lay-up for about a week, inside the knuckle, one of the frigates had a weather on on its upper deck somewhere, slamming in the wind, for a week! no one bothered.

When knock off time came, the slapgat attitude and dress codes was disgusting.

A few months ago I took my sons to open day and yes they loved it, however it didnt take a trained eye to see the lack of maintenance and pride in being part of the once great Navy.
Posted by: Leon Olaf Reeders on November 29th, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I am unsure of the basis or reason for the article by Mr Goodsen. I have unfortunately never had the pleasure of reading any of his previous? articles and am unsure if this is one of a series of articles dealing with the SAN. The distinct negativity of the article coupled to some startling lack of facts made for think ­ that possibly some form of retribution was the objective ­ maybe a rejection of an application for service in the SAN many years back?, I am unsure if Nicholas and Mr Goodsen are one and the same person? No matter! I served in the SAN for 39 happy, always challenging and definitely satisfying years. I was and still am a proud veteran of the SAN irrespective of any management changes! The tone of the article was negative and attacked those who serve ­ not the masters in the halls of power. I compare that to the actions of a senior denigrating a junior, who has no recourse back to the senior ­ surely a less than subtle form of cowardice? Fortunately the freedom of speech allows us the right to reply. Further if I may allude to Nicholas’s reply to R Adm Soderlund that one of the aims was to engender debate then all I have to say Sir, is that debate demands logic and fact ­ two factors completely devoid in the in the initial article.

I trust R Adm (JG) Soderlund’s reply has in some small way rectified any misconception that you/Mr Goodsen may have been under.

Keep it tight

Leon Reeders
Pensioner ­ retired R Adm (JG)
Posted by: Nicholas on November 29th, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Hi Leon,

I am most definitely not Mr. Goodsen, either in name or in character.

Additionally, I feel that my earlier elaboration on the articles was more than enough. I merely made known my thoughts on the material I chanced upon.

The follow-up article was posted in its PDF format as I received it in order to avoid any accusations of alteration.

I too had never heard of Mr. Goodsen before the information I posted on this ‘site came my way. I do not have any affiliations to the SAN or any other navy, and do not consider the subject in general one of my areas of interest or work. As for retribution ­ hardly. That was more than a decade ago, I am gainfully employed in a complete unrelated industry, live a good distance from any coast and have little interest in any navy or coastal application.

You’re right on one part though ­ the freedom of speech bit. As I posted here, so have you. We are both expressing our sole opinions on a subject of current interest.

I find it refreshing to converse with those who have a genuine love for their passion and career, but lest we not forget, every possible choice has negatives and positives. As Robert-John wrote before you, his opinion was a mixed one. One of my particular interests frustrates me immensely, but I still enthuse and participate with joy. Constructive criticism is a necessity in every sphere.

In this case the facts may not be completely as they appear, but they were commented upon as given ­ not stated as facts by me.

My time is drawn upon by various deeds, but I would welcome Mr. Goodsen’s reactions if one of you would like to find him…

What I have come across is all available on this ‘site.

Kind regards,

Posted by: Unfortunately anonymous on November 30th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I served as an officer in the SAN and as such prefer not to state my identity for fear of reprisal. I must say that the article does contain some completely untrue statements but I do also feel that the responses of Admirals Soderland, Reed­ers and Bennett reflect part of the problem that ex junior officers such as myself felt, and indeed caused us to leave the navy.

I remember being an OOW on the SAS Umgeni and having an ex MK officer as my SOOW. He felt sea­sick so went to bed. After complaining to the OC, I was told that it’s not my place to question this. I, and my colleagues (of my entire year group at Gordon’s Bay, only about 4 are still serving), have stories like this too numerous to mention. Time and time again, we as junior officers were told to mind our own business. Never was any leadership shown by any flag officers. It is a strange thing to me that the senior levels of the navy seemed to be so out of touch with the mindset of the junior to mid ranking officers.

It is this seeming disconnect between what the admirals in this article feel, and my personal experiences, that make me concerned again. The navy that they served in, with the greatest respect, was a very different navy that exists today. I’m afraid that attending admiral’s lunches and CNavy briefings is going to paint a very different picture than speaking to the Lts, LtCdrs and Cdrs of the seagoing navy…
Posted by: Anoyed Serving Naval Warrant Officer on December 1st, 2010 at 10:14 am

The art­icle on THE SINKING OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN NAVY is rather disturbing and annoy me greatly, and I presume many others.

After more than 40 years of service in the SADF/SANDF NAVY and with 365 days left before retirement, I ask myself how did the service treat me? Question is Who is the Service? The service is made out of people like you and me. Some will treat each other badly and thus it becomes the Service that has treated you badly and not the person. Has the service treated me badly? NO!. Has certain people treated me badly? YES. But if you are not willing to take the BS that is given to you by people in your working environment, then leave. But dont spread the word that the Service has treated you badly. Rather point out the individuals if you are man enough. During the past few years I trained many Officers and Non-commissioned Officers of All of Arms of the SANDF. I have found that the original integrated members (freedom fighters)(nothing against them) had a different attitude towards the SANDF and did not want to take on its culture. If you do not change your military culture from a freedom fighter organisation to a military culture like the SANDF you will have problems. That I found in the beginning, now the yougsters are coming into the service, who have gone through the military culture basic training and many of them wants to make the SANDF their career and realise that they need to work very hard to progress. Affirmative action can and will harm. But if you who are in the organisation and you do not want to change your attitude, you will also have a problem.

I had to change my attitude and had to make a decision that if I am not willing to help and integrate into the SANDF (NAVY), then things will go down the drain. A large problem that we in the SANDF have is that there is not enough funds to support the SANDF. So please stop complaining if we cannot maintain our ships/aircraft and tanks to the standard of many years ago. We are doing the best we can. Accidents do happen all over the world. A brand new Daring Class destroyer with a 10m gash in the side. Australia’s 6 subs are out of commission due to problems. Then we are doing very well as you can read about our navy’s exploits nationally and internationally. If another OCEANOS happens and the Air Force cannot put helicopters out over the rescue area because they have not got enough “pilots/aircraft or fuel” due to budget cuts and may people die/drown. Who are you going to blame– Us the Defence Force, or the Polititians who cut the budgets? What have all the negative speaking people (against the Navy (SANDF) done to help us rectify our problems. NOTHING but B…t.…g. What have you done to make South Africa a better place apart from complaining and blaming others (NOTHING I presume). I will retire in a year and know I tried my best and I must say I enjoyed it, even with all its hardships. I am not a submariner, but I am trying my best to help and preserve our naval heritage and culture for all serving members and our children , thus I am also involved with saving our last Daphne submarine (S99 ­ SAS ASSEGAAI). Are there anybody out there, apart from a very few who is supporting this cause?…

How about starting to put Positive Articles on this site, about the SANDF (NAVY) that can also start some healthy debate?

Yours Aye

Dirk Steenkamp
WO1: Serving
Posted by: Nicholas on December 1st, 2010 at 10:35 am

Good morning Dirk,

Without intent to instigate, may I suggest rereading everything in its entirety pertaining to this subject on my >personal< blog?

I am not, nor have I ever been in the SAN. I posted what I came across and commented on what info’ I had available to me.

If a reader here has access to Mr. Goodsen, please feel free to invite him to comment on his articles.

The patriotism and dedication to duty is a welcome rarity in SA these days.

Some things can be blamed on a lack of funds, some not. EVERYONE is WELL aware of the squeeze on finances all over, largely due to corruption.

Basic balls-ups and a BS entitlement attitude from some (and this is NOT navy-specific) are definitely not due to financial issues.

I am personally involved in drives to preserve various historical elements, but as always, those who do not support someone’s personal causes are destined to take flac.

Good on you for your work with the SAS Assegaai ­ I hope you secure what you need to keep things going there.

If you have something you wish to contribute for possible inclusion on my blog, feel free to send it in, but keep in mind that my personal thoughts on whatever matter you submit may not reflect yours ­ that’s the beauty of free speech and intelligent debate.

Kind regards,


With acknowledgements to Stephen Goodson.

Despite possibly not the most thorough investigation, by Stephen Goodson, which is not surprising because the SA Navy is extremely coy about its misadventures (indeed there is a lot of out and out lying in this regard), there is quite a lot of truth in his article.

The facts may not be exact because the author has had to rely on word of mouth and not on open, detailed and truth statements and reports.

The facts are that a 3-year submarine was so badly damaged by incorrect maintenance action that it has been out of the water for 3 years and it will cost between R250 million and R1 500 million and another 2 years of time at least to get back under the water - if ever.

The frigates have suffered some extremely unfortunate damage to main engines, gear boxes and hulls due to bad design and bad maintenance. At present and without substantial intervention in the form of active anti-galvanic corrosion systems the frigate hulls are corroding away either in harbour and worse at sea.

Navy officers are a band of brothers, especially those in the surface flotilla and they quickly come to each other's rescue, a la Rear Admiral Bennet and Rear Admirals (JG) Soderland and Rheeders. But the truth is that there are extremely poor morale and other problems in the serving ranks.

And it is true that at the Fleet Review a couple of years ago when about 54 SAN vessels sailed past its commander-in-chief COPE pilot, Thabo Mbeki, that most of the commanders were Reserve Force officers. The very person who told me that was the very same officer to whom RAdm Soderland refers in his disparaging, but not altogether accurate rebuttal. At that time at least, very few black officers had either commanding officer or other required sea-going certificates. I don't think that there's been a vast improvement since then.

Rear Admiral Bennett himself has written a lot in the public domain about the treatment of his own son, a former SAN offer with the rank of commander, who has since emigrated to Australia in search of greener pastures (I think in the Australia Navy) or related sector.

The SAN is actually not doing too badly considering its shocking financing and huge burden of trying to operate and support the most modern and complex of frigates and submarines. But truth be told, the government did not buy these vessels to Fight and Win at Sea.

But instead of retired rear admirals coming to the rescue, the DoD and SAN should give Parliament, the public and the 4th Estate the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Maybe then the SAN might just get a few more bob to fight the fiscal blues and keep its vessels from sinking to the bottom of Simon's Town harbour, just like its Nigerian Navy counterpart's MEKO 360HI frigate.