NEW YORK — New York’s assistant adjutant general for the Army National Guard and South Africa’s new defense attache’ met at the historic Harlem Armory Dec. 9 to reinvigorate the training partnership between the New York National Guard and the South African military.
Maj. Gen. Michel Natali and Brig. Gen. Richard Maponyane discussed new opportunities to learn from each other as part of the State Partnership Program agreement, which has been in place since 2003.
“We are still tying the knots from the things that could not be accomplished last year,” Maponyane said. “But I believe, as a representative of South Africa, that the information they presented to us will assist us, moving forward.”
Natali and his staff conducted a briefing with Maponyane and Col. Eric Mabalane, South Africa’s deputy defense attaché, detailing successful past events and future exercises New York and South Africa will support.
“I’m grateful that Maj. Gen. Natali took time out of his tight schedule to accommodate us during this SPP event,” Maponyane said.
The Harlem Armory is the home of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, which traces its history back to the African American 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. The unit is known as “The Harlem Hell Fighters.”
The New York National Guard has two state partners – South Africa and, since 2019, Brazil.
The New York-South Africa partnership was the first state partnership relationship established on the continent of Africa. Over nearly two decades, South Africa and New York have sustained the relationship with exchanges and opportunities to partner in exercises and events in both countries.
In past engagements, New York Soldiers and Airmen participated in multiple events with South Africa, including the Defense Committee Conference led by U.S. Africa Command, which lays out the priorities for the partnership programs between South Africa and New York.
Other engagements included African Aerospace and Defence Expo, the South African Military Skills Competition, disaster preparedness, and multiple subject matter expert exchanges.
The New York National Guard also participated in firefighter exchange missions facilitated at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, where they engaged with Southern Cape Emergency Services, which faces a wildfire season similar to Southern California.
“We sent New York Air National Guard firefighters there two years ago,” Natali said. “We’re doing that operation now on a regular basis, and they help out with sharing best practices with the local firefighting agencies that are in Western Cape Town. ... It’s a pretty rewarding operation.”
However, COVID-19 presented obstacles last year that made communication between the military forces challenging, said Maj. David Myones, the New York State Partnership Program director.
“Most of the engagements (in 2020) were virtual, and there were challenges from the U.S. and South African perspectives due to the nature of the pandemic. However, we were able to share the best practices on how both sides responded to COVID-19,” Myones said.
New York Army National Guard Maj. Teofilo Espinal, the bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, helped sustain the partnership with South Africa throughout the pandemic, Myones said.
Espinal’s primary focus is to facilitate New York and South Africa engagements, working with embassy and combatant command leaders and staff.
While Myones and the SPP team were unable to travel to South Africa due to COVID-19, Espinal developed an SPP joint exercise, called Shared Accord, scheduled in July 2022 and participation in a large South African air show in the fall of 2022, Myones said.
The SPP began in the early ’90s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Department of Defense partnered former Soviet countries with National Guard states to develop relationships and focus on the interoperability of each other’s military.
There are now 85 partnerships with 92 nations around the globe.
“Now that the world is slowly emerging from COVID-19, we are going to re-energize the partnership. In the spring of 2022, we will attend Defense Committee and have what we call “staff talks” between our military and their military,” Myones said. “We will get together and agree on what areas we’re going to cooperate on in the coming years. ... New York will always be partners with South Africa, so we will continue to develop and build those relationships.”