Information and photographs by Maj Ntokozo Ntshangase, SAAF Museum

 It is usually the actions of the few, outside the normal spotlight and seeking no recognition though much is due, that ensure the colourful and joyous lives of many. It is the sacrifices of the few unsung heroes and heroines that voluntarily leave the comfort of their homes to ensure that others sleep peacefully in theirs. It is a watchful and trained eye of a radar technician that helps avert any possible territorial threat by unidentified military and civilian aircraft.

At the mountain top of Ga Mabula (approximately 1163m above sea level) in the heart of the bushveld, approximately 27km northeast of Ellisras lies a Mono-pulse Secondary Surveillance Radar (MSSR) and an AR-3D Umlindi long-range deployable radar system, which provide a real-time Air Picture display with a 3D multi-purpose function. These capabilities are which are all in the employ of and maintained by 140 Squadron. These systems are strategically situated at the Ellisras Control Reporting Post and information on any airspace activity along the northwestern borders of the country is relayed to both the Lowveld Airspace Sector (LASS) at AFB Hoedspruit and Bushveld Airspace Control Sector (BACS) at Air Command, in the provinces of Limpopo and Gauteng respectively.

Ellisras CRP members

The Flight Technical Officer (Site Manager), Warrant Officer Class 1 Albertus Horn, a seasoned Radar Technician from 140 Squadron and currently stationed at Ellisras, is one of the many professionals behind the operational serviceability of the SAAF’s radar systems. He is charged with ensuring uninterrupted running of the station as well as providing cost effective ground radar services to different stakeholders. Like many other leaders in the organization, he is able to do much with less, operating and maintaining the serviceability of nearly obsolete systems. To his advantage and notwithstanding the daily challenges, he is surrounded by a bunch of willing, dedicated and committed uniformed and Defence Civilian members.

The often unnoticed yet critical role of the Defence Civilian component in the maintenance of the organisation’s structures is vividly seen at Ellisras CRP. Mr. William Mafifi has been with No. 2 Satellite Radar Station before it was renamed in September 1984. Together with his colleagues, he responsible for maintenance of the buildings, road leading to the area and gardening. In his 38 years (and counting) with Ellisras CRP, Mr. Mafifi has experienced every evolutionary stage in the area and has a recollection of it as a fully functioning unit. As a groundsman and a general labourer, he has fixed everything, touched the lives of many soldiers, and enhanced the image of the Air Force in the Ellisras/Lephalale community.

Located at AFB Swartkop, 501 Squadron provides protection and security services in the area. Besides the associated logistical nightmare that confronts the Squadron, providing proactive security services at Ellisras CRP in no mean feat and not for the faint-hearted. At the highest point of the mountain and in the company of the baboons, warthogs, leopards and snakes, the Squadron provides 24/7 uninterrupted security services.

Flight Technical Officer,
WO1 Albertus Horn

Umlindi and MSSR deployed at Ellisras CRP

General Labourer,
Mr William Mafifi

When the SAAF Museum visited Ellisras CRP in December 2021, Corporal Ralpton Jaftha from 501 Squadron was a shift leader to a group tasked with providing security services. For him the protection of the country’s territorial airspace is as important as the safeguarding of the invaluable assets that make possible the surveillance and monitoring of the borders. “The Air Defence of the country begins with the protection of the structures that houses the immovable and critical assets which provide real-time air picture.” he said.

He maintains that the role which Ellisras CRP and other reporting posts play in the broader national security, calls for the highest levels of alertness. Thus, he insists that members should always be motivated. On certain occasions, he uses the unforgiving 4km uphill to the station for training and determining the true character of his colleagues.

No 2 Satellite Radar station (as Ellisras CRP was initially known) started operation in January 1964 under the leadership of Captain C.J. Schoon who became the station’s first Officer Commanding. The station became known as Ellisras Control and Reporting Post on 28 September 1984. Since the early days of the Marconi S239 which provided radar height-finding and a computer-controlled Plessey HF200, Ellisras has integrated and transformed its systems in order to allow for improved and faster track-and-trace capabilities. In its initial stages, the station was equipped with both L and S frequency bands powered by a 2MW transmitter and electronic countermeasures.

The construction of the station took into account the requirements of all Project “Nassau” stations. This included generator-based electric power, automotive and electrical workshops, and radio communications terminals. As Major General Tom Cockbain correctly recorded the early events at Ellisras CRP, the station made provision for a “a domestic area with brick houses, messes, a recreation hall, etc was built on the outskirts of the town…”. With the repositioning of the Air Force’s resources and structural reforms throughout the country, Ellisras CRP undergone its own reforms. Many services were cancelled and only available on request. When the Air Force scaled down and the 118 South African Infantry Battalion closed its operations in 2006, local police took over most part of the area. Unfortunately, the residential area has since become a skeleton of its former self.

Before the repositioning and scaling down, Ellisras CRP was fully behind humanitarian projects in the surrounding communities and provided rescued during natural disasters. In February 1996, for instance, Ellisras CRP through the Air Force, assisted during floods which devastated the area. Those selfless deeds and commitment to the call of duty led to the Transitional Council Resolution which conferred the Freedom of the Town to Ellisras CRP in September 1997. The Transitional Council resolved to confer the freedom of the town on Ellisras CRP in “recognition of the proud service record, co-operation and aid to the community”. And thereby, “…bestowing the right on the Reporting Post to parade through the streets of the town on foot, motorized or mechanized with orchesteral accomplishment and colours flying to demonstrate its right of free entrance to the town…”.