Author: Major Ntokozo Ntshangase, SAAF Museum; Photos: Maj Gen Tsoku Khumalo


When uncertainties and doubts preoccupied every other conversation about whether or not former adversaries could coexist, others took to the skies to rewrite history and to profess that “no human is limited". The common denominator amongst almost all the 1970s youngsters who later became prominent public figures and military commanders was the inescapable brutality of the apartheid security forces as well as their desire to live in a democratic society.  These youngsters, teenagers and their households knew neither any privacy nor human dignity. They witnessed their parents being constantly harassed and dragged into “Kwelakwela".

Major General Tsoku Mooipati Khumalo was born on 26 August 1964, in Orlando West, Soweto. He completed his elementary education at Mzamo Junior Secondary School in Newcastle and later moved to Matseke High School in Orlando West. As a teenager and unlike many who claim struggle credentials even before they were forced into exile, he did what every other youngster enjoyed doing. “I got involved with every nonsensical things that young boys get entangled in", he recalled. He played around the streets of Soweto, took a train to the Johannesburg CBD, tried to avoid pavements as directed by the city laws and stood his ground when white children insulted him. The strong hand of the apartheid government forced his parents to shield him from political involvement.

The formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983 raised the levels of harassment and degradation by government machinery and as a result, the Khumalos crossed the Komati border into Mozambique. A few months later, he and his two younger brothers were sent to Morogoro, Tanzania to continue their schooling at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO). In 1985 while still in Tanzania, he joined the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. It was while in exile that he came of age and in the presence of seasoned and well-polished struggle stalwarts, his political appreciation took form. He became politically aware and conscious of the social ills bequeathed against black people in South Africa. Between 1986 and 1987 he attended military training in Ethiopia as a Ranger Commando (Special Forces).

He was tasked with presenting academic (literacy) classes to other comrades who became residents in the Angolan camps and true to the words of Ernesto “Che" Guevara that “the first duty of a revolutionary is to be educated”, exiles were provided with basic academic lessons and political education.

In 1988, he left for the Soviet Union to train as a fighter pilot. At the Tokmak Basic Flying School in Frunze, Bishkek in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, he flew the Czechoslovakian-built Aero L-39 Albatros, accumulating over 200 flying hours. The dissolution of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 led to the withdrawal of the South African group in the country and the successful conclusion of United Nations Resolution 435 of 1978, which had called for a cease-fire, withdrawal of all South African forces in Angola and Namibia and elections leading to the independence of Namibia.

In 1992, after nine years in foreign lands, he returned home and went straight to Shell House, the ANC’s Headquarters. Now matured, focused, trained and a strategists at his own right, he felt the need to contribute towards an inclusive society. The party’s leadership thought it necessary to arrange for him and his comrades further military training and soon became guests in Zimbabwe. That visit was short-lived however and in around February 1993, he returned to South Africa and headed straight to the landmark democratic negotiations – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). He, together with Mr Wiseman Mbambo (currently, Maj General) and Mr Linda Mlangeni (later, Colonel) participated in the Joint Military Coordinating Committee of the Air Force under the chairmanship of then MK Chief of Staff Siphiwe Nyanda (later, CSANDF). He was instrumental in the planning and processes leading to integration in the SA Air Force. These negotiations gave him an insight into the organization even before he could officially integrate in 1994.

He integrated as a Candidate Officer and underwent conversion onto the locally-built Atlas Impala jet trainer at 85 Combat Flying School. In July 1995, with the rank of Captain, he undertook his first solo flight which made him not only the first “ex-MK, but also the first black South African Air Force pilot ever to pilot a fighter aircraft in South African skies" (Ad Astra Magazine, August 1995). In 1997 he requested to be transferred to 41 Squadron stationed at AFB Waterkloof where he flew Cessna 208 Caravans. According to him, he experienced a state of stagnation due to a number of in-house complications inside the fighter line.  In 2003, now a Lieutenant Colonel, he completed the Joint Command Senior Staff Course which qualified him for the post as a Senior Staff Officer Strategic Planning in 2004.

If the Air Force was to experience any or meaningful structural transformation it had to start from where it mattered the most – the cockpit. In 2005 he was appointed as Officer Commanding Air Force Base Langebaanweg amid racial intolerances which were suspected to be behind many black pupil pilots failing the course. “There were racial tensions and offensive utterances at the base", he confirmed. However, for him black pupil pilots were not failed based on the colour of their skin. Whilst admitting that instructors at the school were mostly white, he dismissed allegations of racism in the classrooms. According to him, he encouraged members to report racist cases to the nearest police station. He lambasted suggestions that other students were not academically strong but could excel in the cockpit. For him, one needed to master the ground work first before attempting to fly.  In 2007, Major General Nhlanhla Ngema had suggested that senior certificate symbols did not “necessarily mean that one had commensurate physical coordination of the hands, mind and brain". Alternatively, for him, “You might want to drop a candidate from aviation selection, simply because his symbols appeared poor. But, in reality, you might discover that he had phenomenal coordination abilities….” (Ad Astra Magazine 2007).

In 2006, he was promoted to Brigadier General as Director Transport and Maritime Services at Air Force Headquarters. At the age of 41 he was relatively young and was expected to deliver on the Air Force’s mandate with ageing aircraft. He explained that the performance of the Air Force was measured on the hours it flew. Unfortunately, reflecting further, since integration flying hours had been dropping due to budget cuts. “The Air Force had the resources and all relevance tools but no budget to maintain them", he said.

In 2010, he was elevated to the rank of Major General, appointed as Chief Director Force Preparation and charged with the responsibility of ensuring SAAF operational readiness. According to him, the organization was expected to deliver on its mandate with minimal resources and diminishing capabilities. The Air Force has always had problems due to budget cuts and as such, the scorecards were always placing the organization between amber and red. “The situation was continually evaluated and recommendations forwarded to the responsible committee in government as well as treasury”, he recalled.

At a tender age of 49 years and after 19 years as a disciplined member and high ranking officer, he voluntarily left the organization.

He dismissed as nonsensical sporadic rumours that he wishes to return to the Air Force. Instead, in his futuristic perspectives, he employs a similar approach as recently argued by Director Corporate Staff Services, Brigadier General Hilton Smith, “in order for any organization to thrive and project forward, top management must develop an organizational culture that encourages strategic and results-oriented thinking amongst all employees, and must then give employees the training and opportunities to utilize the results-oriented thinking skill". He strongly believes that the organization has in abundance many young and capable people to drive it forward. He holds the opinion that any organization that lacks strategic succession planning and implementation is doomed to fail. Thus, he harbours no such a return.

He is currently at home with his family.  At 56, Maj Gen (ret) Tsoku Khumalo is still willing and ready to serve his country and to contribute towards the prosperity of humanity. He remains part of our country’s living heritage and the SA Air Force Museum is honoured to have been able to interact with him.