by Piet Coetzer

South African involvement in the Central African Republic

Negative fallout a serious domestic matter


On the international diplomatic and media fronts, South Africa’s military involvement in the Central African Republic has not met with questioning or negative reactions. On the domestic front, however, it was dramatically different, begging the question why government won the international battle but losing it so badly on the home front? 

The international reaction, or non-reaction, can probably be ascribed to the fact that right until the end, with the withdrawal of its troops last week from CAR, the South African government legally and diplomatically played it by the book.

The country’s involvement was not only in line with the policies and declared stances of the African Union but also those based on a legal bilateral agreement between itself and the internationally-accepted legitimate government of CAR.

And, despite strong demands at home to the contrary, government did not immediately withdraw from that agreement or its troops, after 13 of them were killed in the crossfire during a violent overthrow of the recognised CAR government by rebels. It waited until a summit meeting of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) decided that “... the government of the CAR, which was constituted after the 23 March 2013, is not recognised as a legitimate government. This is in line with the African Union statutes that outlaw unconstitutional changes of governments on the continent.”

Domestic front

On the domestic front, however, things played out quite differently since especially opposition parties were clearly uninformed about the reasons for the South African National Defence Force's (SANDF) involvement in CAR, why additional troops were sent to that country earlier this year or the strategy, and the reasons that these were followed by government. This led to a highly emotional and deeply divisive public debate when the country was totally surprised by the deaths of the troops.

It is accepted practice in democratic countries that when it comes to matters of non-partisan national interest, especially as far as the armed forces are concerned, the leadership of opposition parties are regularly briefed on a confidential basis about developments. In the interest of the armed forces, debates on such matters are conducted behind closed doors.

Clearly government and the leadership of the SANDF failed the country’s armed forces by not doing enough to ensure domestic solidarity with them. Much more could have been done to avoid the perception that the SANDF is the exclusive property and instrument of the ruling party.

It might also be true that president Jacob Zuma and the rest of the political leadership involved with the SANDF were badly advised due to an intelligence failure on the part of the SANDF. As the Freedom Front’s spokesperson on military affairs, Pieter Groenewald rightly remarked that  “Serious questions now have to be asked about the capability of Military Intelligence (MI) which could not provide information which would have prevented the situation.”

Mr. Groenewald’s other, ill-advised and dangerously emotional statement, linking the tragic deaths of the SANDF troops to the equally tragic deaths from farm murders, could maybe also have been avoided if he had been properly and confidentially informed about the SANDF missions on an ongoing basis.

It is also telling that it took almost two weeks after South African troops fell in CAR and most of the damage on the domestic front had been done, before government bothered to release the copy of the bilateral agreement with that country in terms of which the troops were deployed.

In terms of article 3 (2) and 3 (3) of that agreement a 'Joint Defence Committee' between the two countries was established in 2007, which would meet every two years. At these meetings, in terms of article 9 the two countries can “enter into such further agreements, of a general or specific nature, that will promote the effective implementation of this MOU.”

This information now places in perspective the meetings that took place in December last year and January this year, that led to the deployment of 200 more SANDF troops to CAR.

The question arises why this information was not released immediately in the face of the initial reaction about the motives and legality of the deployment of those troops by president Zuma. In the wake of this absence of proper information came an abundance of wild speculation and rumours.

Clearly more could have, should have been and, in future, needs to be done to open channels of communication between government and opposition parties to avoid the SANDF becoming a political party football to be kicked around by while it consists of members who serve the interest of all South Africans, irrespective of any party's political affiliation.


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