Hard on the heels of a traumatic experience in the Central African Republic (CAR) and amid great concerns about the impact of meagre budget allocations on its effectiveness, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is about to face its biggest challenge since the advent of democracy in 1994. The stakes are high for both the force and the developing United Nations intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The ongoing conflict in the DRC between government forces and Mai Mai militiamen has prompted the UN Security Council to authorise a new ‘intervention brigade’ for the Congo. Ominously, the mandate of the UN force is not merely about ‘peacekeeping’, but taking offensive military action against rebel groups to help bring peace to the eastern parts of the country.
The implication is that the 3 000-plus troops to be deployed in the DRC, although under the flag of the UN, can expect to become involved in active combat against the battle-hardened forces of the March 23 Movement – popularly known as the M23 rebels – in the eastern part of the country. The group has already declared it would fight back if attacked.
The Congolese army said 32 people were killed in fighting between Congolese soldiers and militiamen who attacked a town north of Goma on Wednesday.
The clashes are linked with the DRC's vast mineral resources, and the country has been beset by fighting since the end of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution establishing a special response team. The South African-led forces will protect civilians and will carry out “offensive and targeted operations” in a more robust form of intervention in regional conflicts by the UN.
The multinational force has already started to take shape. A contingent of about 100 Tanzanian troops arrived in eastern Congo on 11 May, and many more are expected. Malawi has pledged troops, and it has been reported that South Africa has already marshalled army officers to lead the UN mission in the DRC.
The operation creates an important opportunity for South Africa, with international sanction, to back up its ever increasing diplomatic profile on the continent with proof that it has the capacity to add deeds to words and mere declarations.
It further creates the opportunity for its forces to gain valuable active experience under potential combat conditions.
After decades of conflict in the region, however, it cannot be expected that the rebels will be a pushover. There are some considerable risks involved in the operation. For one, South Africa’s image could be badly dented if things should go wrong.
Furthermore, it would be foolhardy not to anticipate there could be South African casualties – and the South African government should have learnt its lesson from the CAR adventure about the importance of the ‘home front’. If the South African public is not properly prepared to understand what is happening, and opposition parties are not properly kept in the loop, things could again explode in the government’s face.
With all the experience that comes with many years of being involved in a war, the M23 rebels have already proved they understand the multifaceted nature of modern warfare. They warned South Africa's Parliament in an open letter that they would not be responsible for a "mutual massacre" when attacked on their home turf. Using Twitter, they warned that UN forces, which will likely have South African troops on the front lines, would face "continuous deadly combat". They also mocked the South African forces as "corrupt" and "old".
For the SANDF’s military commanders, the DRC operation may be an opportunity to persuade their political masters that something should be done about the meagre budgetary allocations under which they have to operate. In the meantime, however, this also constitutes a major risk for the defence force’s success in the DRC.
South African army chief, Lt. Gen. VR Masondo, recently told reporters: “Funding challenges make it difficult to do everything that we are required to do.But we acknowledge there is dire need for the South African government to direct resources to social and economic programmes in a country with high unemployment and a widening gulf between rich and poor," he said.
He added that the South African army's budget is about $1.1 billion, which is not enough to address its needs including the replacement of old equipment and dilapidated facilities, and tasks such as foreign missions, border patrols, securing hospitals during worker strikes, the documentation of immigrants and support for the police.
‘Mission DRC’ has all the potential to become a make-or-break experience for not only the SANDF, but also for South Africa’s international aspirations to be an important – if not the most important – role-player on the African continent.