The Citizen Got the Zuma Warship Story Wrong

Jan 20, 12 The Citizen Got the Zuma Warship Story Wrong

Driving around Johannesburg on Wednesday, it was difficult to miss the blaring headline shouting out in big, bold sans serif from The Citizen’s signboards:


Intriguing, no? On reading the article, you would have been greeted by a lede that ups the ante even further:

Jacob Zuma wants an aircraft carrier, and it will be partly up to convicted fraudster Tony Yengeni to decide who will get the contract to supply a warship potentially costing even more than the four frigates bought as part of the controversial 1999 R60 billion arms deal.

Seems pretty outrageous, doesn’t it? That our taxes are being spent in an apparently corrupt deal to buy something as insanely expensive as an aircraft carrier? However, on closer examination, none of these claims turn out to be true: it wasn’t Zuma’s idea, it isn’t an aircraft carrier, and Tony Yengeni is not involved in deciding who gets to sell us the ships.

So most of the story is inaccurate and The Citizen’s slant is blatantly wrong. This is a truly awful article that misleads the public about an important military acquisition.

First, despite The Citizen’s implication that this is a new revelation, the existence of Project Millennium, the subject of this story, has never been secret. On the contrary, the SANDF has been speaking to journalists about Millennium since 2008, outlining the requirement for a Strategic Support Ship (SSS) and the reasoning behind it. Not that attending SANDF briefings appears to be a priority for The Citizen, which would rather report by proxy.

It’s not as if these have been obscure briefings either. All the major potential bidders were well represented at Africa Aerospace & Defence 2010 in Cape Town and covered extensively in the show’s official news handouts. Any journalist attending would’ve had to be blind to miss it.

Nor is the claim that President Zuma ‘wants’ this ship true. This project was initiated by the SANDF under President Mbeki and Defence Minister Lekota and it was prompted by the SAN’s lack of large sealift vessels and the proven effectiveness of these types of ships in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations where their ability to carry hundreds of people, dozens of helicopters and vehicles and hundreds of tons of cargo are extremely useful.

Second, the ship envisioned under Project Millennium will not be an ‘aircraft carrier’, as it will be a fraction of the size of true aircraft carriers and incapable of carrying fixed-wing aircraft. It will instead likely be a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) type vessel such as the Navantia BPE ordered by Australia or France’s DCS Mistral, capable of carrying about a dozen helicopters. That’s tiny compared to the 90 airplanes and helicopters that a real carrier like the USS Ronald Reagan can carry.

FNS Mistral


The FNS Mistral (top) an LHD of the type envisaged by the SAN, compared to the USS Ronald Reagan (bottom), a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Note the difference?

Third, despite the claims in the article, Tony Yengeni will have no direct role in determining which company, if any, is awarded the contract for Project Millennium.

Instead, he’s a part of the defence review committee, charged with coming up with an updated defence review to determine the SANDF’s mission and capabilities for the next few years. As the last such review was in 1998, a new one is long overdue.

As with the last defence review, this will be made open to public consultation in order to encourage a transparent discussion about the SANDF’s future role. Far from being sinister, this is something which should be welcomed.

And while I disagree with his presence on the committee, the fact remains that the committee will not be responsible for either making the decision that one or more Strategic Support Ships are to be acquired or choosing which company will supply them. At most the review can recommend that the SANDF should have the capability these ships would offer, but the final decision on whether to proceed with an acquisition is up to cabinet, the treasury and the SANDF.

And the actual decision regarding which company will be awarded the contract will be part of a completely separate process carried out by the Millennium project team, the defence department and cabinet. Thus far there is no indication that Tony Yengeni will be involved in any of this, so his past involvement in Arms Deal bribes is irrelevant.

That means that none of the controversial claims made in the article stand up to scrutiny and the main editorial slant is a complete fabrication. Never has it been so blatantly obvious that The Citizen lacks either a defence correspondent or any journalists who possess an understanding of military issues.

It’s articles like this that give the government ammunition in its plans to regulate the media. The Citizen should be ashamed.

Image by El coleccionista de instantes

  • Roger

    One can’t help getting the impression that as far as the general news media is concerned (not only in SA, it is a worldwide phenomenon) it is a crime and a sin for any journalist to actually have any knowlege whatsoever about anything even vaguely connected to military matters. How many times have we seen reporters describing APCs (even wheeled ones) as “tanks” or any kind of warship, no matter its size, often gets labelled a “battleship”.

    • Darren Olivier

      Agreed. I think to a certain extent the SANDF is at fault as it could do a better job of reaching out to the media and explaining itself, but most commonly it appears to be a combination of pure laziness and an overriding desire for sensationalist articles amongst most journalists.

      Unfortunately we’re in the situation where few journalists have any military experience (or are close to those who do) and their perception of the military and of acquisitions in general has been distorted by the controversy around the Arms Deal and the general pacifist backlash against international military engagements such as Iraq and Afghanistan. We are that the point where most journalists (and sadly, many South Africans) are conditioned to automatically suspect corruption and ulterior motives in anything to do with the military.

      As a result, few journalists are even interested in correcting their lack of knowledge on military issues and equipment. 

      It’s a tricky problem to solve.

  • Ajsmit

    Well said Darren,