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 “The First Black Pilot..!”
 By Capt Ntokozo Ntshangase,AD ASTRA Editor, photo by 5ASU

Brig Gen Mzayifani Buthelezi, Director Air Transport and Maritime Systems

Brig Gen Mzayifani Innocent Buthelezi grew up hoping to be the first black pilot, the dream he would partly accomplish. From the dusty streets of Kwa Mashu, Durban, in Kwa Zulu-Natal came an activist for social change, an ardent believer in education, but most importantly, a soldier and a leader emerged from humble beginnings.

The Brig Gen was born in KwaMashu, Kwa Zulu-Natal, on 20 May 1965. He attended Nkulisabantu Lower Primary, Ngazana Primary, Phakama Higher Primary School, Vuyiswa Mtolo Secondary School and Dr John Langalibalele High School, all in Kwa-Mashu.

At the age of 14, Brig Gen Buthelezi knew nothing about aviation or that he would later lead the directorate, which is charged with air transporting government principals. However, in his youthful mind, it was vividly clear what he wanted in life – to become a pilot, and to serve his country with pride and dignity. Ironically, the airplanes that hovered around in black township inspired him.

The political and social upheavals in the country activated his political consciousness, driven by the desire to bring about equality and social change. While in his elementary schooling, Brig Gen Buthelezi voluntarily joined the student’s movement, Congress of South African Students (COSAS). He would later become the movement’s Secretary for the Kwa Mashu branch. However, his political convictions forced him into exile in 1983 and joined the African National Congress’s armed wing, Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK). “Joining MK was the best thing I have ever done for my country”, he proclaimed.

Career in aviation

When the late Chris Hani, the Commissar and Deputy Commander of Umkhoto Wesizwe, made a call for young recruits to join the world of aviation, amongst the 20 members who answered was the Chief of Air Force, Lt Gen Zimpande Msimang and Brig Gen Buthelezi. It all began at Frunzel flying school, Russia in 1986. His first flying experience came in the form of IM8, IM24 and IM25 Helicopters.

In 1993, Brig Gen Buthelezi returned to South Africa and immediately left for Zimbabwe where he began his conversion to Genet SF 260 at Thornhill Air Force Base. In 1995, while in Zimbabwe, he integrated into the South African Air Force (SAAF) as a Captain. He has gradually moved within the ranks in the SAAF to where he is today. The Brig Gen completed the Senior Command and Staff Course at SAAF College in 2010. It was in September 2011 when he was posted to 43 Brigade and promoted to the rank of Colonel, as the Officer Commanding, Air Operation Team.

To date, he has flown various aircraft in the SAAF namely: MI (PC7); C185 (Cessna); C208, C212 (Caravan). However, in 2007 he was medically restricted. He confided to Ad Astra that, had it not been for medical conditions, he would still be reaching for the stars.

Born to lead

The experiences from foreign lands shaped and prepared him for future leadership duties in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and within the SAAF. He recalled that after completing his pupil’s pilot course in Russia, he left for Angola to become a Company Commander. In 1990, he moved to Uganda as a Tactical Subject Instructor.

Brig Gen Buthelezi has served in various leadership capacities, which include duties outside aviation. Between 1999 and 2001, he showed his versatility when he was transferred to Defence Intelligence as an Information Collection Officer. In 2009 and 2011, he served at Directorate Air Safety (DAS) as a SO Life Support Systems and at Command Post as an Operations Officer both situated at SAAF Headquarters. 

He reckons that the highlight of his career since integrating in the SAAF was in 2014 when he was appointed as a Wing Coordinator at Air Force Base Waterkloof (AFB WKLF). The appointment was “strenuous but educational”, he said. As a Wing Coordinator, he was responsible for all operations and the management of the squadrons. Moreover, he would find himself as the Acting Officer Commanding of AFB WKLF. He believes that his appointment as Director Air Transport and Maritime Systems (DAT & MS) culminated from his leadership acumen as displayed at AFB WKLF.  

In June 2015, Brig Gen Buthelezi was promoted and appointed as DAT&MS at SAAF Headquarters. The passion and sense of ownership are clearly visible when sharing what entails his current position. He is the man at work, ready to achieve more with less. As DAT&MS, some of his responsibilities include:

“To develop and prepare the SAAF’s Air Transport and Maritime capabilities and a clear understanding of the future requirements pertaining to such capabilities within the National, Regional and Continental context. To focus policy development and capacity-building efforts on the equipment, training and preparation that will best enable the SAAF to support the SANDF to undertake any assigned missions. Air Transport and Maritime tasks must be matched to appropriate air assets in the most cost-effective and operationally efficient manner to ensure that the lowest operational cost is achieved”.

At the stage where the SAAF is expected to meet its mandate with fewer resources in terms of budget allocation, Brig Gen Buthelezi beams with confidence that he will realize and achieve these responsibilities. He explained that his departure point would be to rekindle the relations with other stakeholders. He places training and skills development at the forefront in achieving effective air transport and maritime tasks. He suggested “special attention and more efforts need to be directed at finding the balance with regard to racial representation in all squadrons”.

Whilst he is content with how the SAAF has progressed in attracting young people to pursue career in aviation, particularly within DAT&MS, he admits that more still needs to be done. “We must ensure that more young people are recruited, trained and afforded the opportunity to grow. The more we recruit and train, the easier it would be to retain experienced pilots”, he suggested.

Like a true leader, Brig Gen Buthelezi knows that he needs committed and results-driven soldiers to deliver in his mandate. He is people oriented. He believes in personnel empowerment, which include inter alia, engaging and sharing information and insight with every member under his command. “I have an open door policy and members are encouraged to come forth and raise whatever issue”, he stated.

He encouraged SAAF members to be patriotic and serve to inspire the next person. He also challenged everyone, whether in uniform or not, to remember why they serve in the SAAF.

Brig Gen Buthelezi is married and has two boys and two girls. Outside his military responsibilities, the Brig Gen is a motivational speaker.



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