During political campaigning, as in war, truth is often the first victim. This has again been tragically and dangerously illustrated by the reaction from most quarters to the sad news of the death of 13 South African soldiers on a legitimate mission in the Central African Republic (CAR). Those sons of South Africa were badly failed by the neglect of opposition in parliament and by government for allowing ‘mission creep’ to take place.
The first falsehood perpetrated by all and sundry – including the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance – in their haste to make political capital out of the tragedy, is that it had been President Jacob Zuma who had got South Africa involved in CAR.
That is simply not true. South Africa’s involvement in peace efforts in the deeply divided country of CAR goes back to 2007 when Thabo Mbeki was still president. In the wake of a peace accord between the warring parties in CAR earlier that year aimed at, among others, a government of national unity, South Africa was one of a number of countries that signed a bilateral agreement for military co-operation.
In terms of the peace accord, amnesty was given to ‘rebel’ or opposition groups and a process of further negotiation set in motion.
The mission of the South African military contingent sent to CAR, and part of public record, was to provide CAR’s army with an array of military training – from infantry, artillery and special forces training to logistics and driving courses – as well as ‘refurbishment’ of military infrastructure in Bouar and Bangui. South Africa’s military has supported disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes, and it assisted in CAR’s 2011 elections.
There had been initial success. The ongoing internal negotiations resulted in an agreement in 2008 for reconciliation, a unity government, and local elections in 2009 as well as parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010. The resulting new unity government was formed in January 2009.
Even a respected commentator such as University of Cape Town academic Pierre de Vos makes himself guilty of what can at best be described as a half truth, when he poses the question: “What if we send troops to protect a president who came to power in a coup d’état – as was the case in CAR?”
Although President François Bozizé originally came to power in a 2003 coup supported by Chad’s President Idriss Deby, he has since won two elections – although the 2011 poll was dismissed by opposition parties as fraudulent.
Fact is, however, that peace never truly took hold of the CAR and conflict has flared up on a regular basis.
In December 2012, the bilateral agreement between South Africa and the CAR was renewed for another five-year period, and on 6 January this year Zuma announced that in terms of the agreement, some 200 more South African troops would be deployed in the CAR, in what should have been a clear warning sign that ‘mission creep’ was taking place – sucking South Africa deeper into the conflict than was prudent.
Shortly afterward, Zuma announced on 13 January that another ceasefire agreement had been signed between the rebels and the government of President Bozizé. This agreement fell apart in March, Bozizé fled the country, and South African soldiers got caught up in the accompanying chaos.
It is a mystery why Zuma’s advisers and support staff have not brought to the fore the history of the country’s involvement in CAR, and instead have allowed deep division over the matter to develop among the South African public. They have badly failed the country’s troops, the president and the country as a whole.
By the same token, it is disingenuous for people such as the DA’s military spokesperson David Maynier to pretend that parliament had been misled about the presence of South African soldiers in the CAR and that he did not know what they had been doing there.
He should have been aware thereof two years ago, at least. In February 2011, responding to an opposition question, government informed parliament in a written reply that “South Africa’s involvement in the security of the Central African Republic followed President Francois Bozizé’s request to South Africa to assist the Central African Republic’s Defence Force to upgrade their military capabilities” and that a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) special forces unit had been provided for “VIP protection to President Bozizé”.
At that point, opposition parties should probably have done more to bring pressure to bear to ensure the SANDF had been properly capacitated to do the job with which it had been tasked.
In their haste to score political points in the run-up to next year’s general election, opposition parties and other commentators run the risk of missing the real lesson of the tragedy – and embarrassment – that befell South Africa’s troops in CAR. In the process, they are once more failing those troops by not focusing on their needs in order to fulfil their missions successfully.
While South Africa has legitimate reasons to get involved in missions on the African continent, the capacity, training and proper funding of the SANDF has been falling dangerously short for some time now. Unless proper logistical support, efficient and sufficient equipment, adequate backup and contingency plans are in place and ensured by sufficient capacity, more deployments in future may run into ‘suicide missions’.