Sunday, January 01, 2006

New submarine museum to surface soon


Mail Guardian
April 29, 2005

The SAS Assegaai.

The South African Navy submarine SAS Assegaai, decommissioned almost two years ago, will continue serving her country as the main attraction at a planned museum of submarine technology.

"We want to preserve the proud submarine heritage of South Africa. This submarine museum will be the first in Africa," said Rear-Admiral Arne Söderlund, former director of fleet force preparation.

Söderlund, an avid military historian and one of the driving forces behind the new museum, said a group of ex-submariners and navy people were spurred into action when the Assegaai's sister submarine, the SAS Spear, was sold and cut up for scrap.

"We got very excited and even tried to bid for the next one and stop it being sold, but finding a site was a problem ... we spoke to the navy, who agreed to freeze the sub and not part with it."

The SAS Assegaai, formerly the SAS Johanna van der Merwe, was one of three Daphne-class submarines acquired from France during 1970 to 1972, which became the first and so far the only submarines to serve in the South African Navy.

The three boats made up the submarine flotilla and were extensively refitted to maintain operational effectiveness and seaworthiness, with at least one submarine participating in clandestine operations during the Angola conflict in the 1970s.

Söderlund said the plan is to place a prefabricated quay on an existing slipway in the historical naval West yard, and float the submarine, which is currently on a synchrolift, across to the quay using a 30m barge.

"We will have an entrance and exit at either end to allow visitors the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a submarine at close quarters. The whole idea is that the past has to be relevant to be preserved ... we will target children, with interactive classrooms part of a living, educational museum."

He said elements of mathematics and science will be combined in the displays, hopefully leading to more knowledgeable students and enthusiastic potential submariners, who nowadays needed to be skilled artisans, not just able seamen.

This is the case with the crews training for the navy's new submarines, German-built Class 209 Type 1400 MOD diesel-electronic submarines acquired as part of the multibillion-rand arms deal.

Söderlund said the site will be in the immediate vicinity of the Simon's Town Museum as well as the existing Navy Museum facilities.

Importantly, an independent environmental-impact assessment conducted was positive, taking into consideration various factors, such as the impact the quay would have on the tides and sea life, and if there were any historical artifacts that needed to be dredged up.

"We have done our homework. The project must obviously also be self-sustaining."

Söderlund said funding the project remains a priority, with an estimated R2,5-million to R4-million needed before the museum is finalised sometime next year.

He said a prominent black businessman, who wants to remain anonymous at this stage, has indicated a willingness to invest capital and ensure that the project come to fruition.

The Naval Board at defence headquarters also recently approved the preservation project, leaving the fund-raising to the submarine preservation group.

Another obstacle is for the existing Navy Museum to be officially declared a museum by the government, thereby unblocking the industrial capacity of the navy, which would, for example, then be able to use its own manpower to help preserve the submarine.

The hull of the remaining SAS Umkhonto will be used to provide items for submarine escape training facilities, and the rest probably be sold to be cut up for scrap.

"I will refuse to see it or photographs of it being cut up. It's like seeing a member of your family being cut up on the autopsy table," said former submarine commander Peter Keene, himself part of the preservation project.

Keene said over the 30-odd years of service, approximately 1 000 men passed through the submarines, and "each one left a large part of their lives on those boats".

He said the proposed museum will help remind South Africans of their rich maritime tradition, and of the role played by submariners, who by virtue of the work they do are often not in the public eye. -- Sapa



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