President Zuma described the loss of South African troops in the Central African Republic as a “tragedy” on Monday. He praised the members of the South African National Defence Force who had fought rebel forces despite being outgunned, outnumbered and ill-prepared for combat. At the end of it, however, at least 13 South Africans have returned in body bags. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Wilfred Owen closes his World War I poem, An Anthem for Doomed Youth: “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori [It is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country]”. And his words rang true on Monday, when President Zuma confirmed that 13 South African soldiers had died in combat in the Central African Republic. He lamented their passing, praised their valour and commended South African troops for fighting for their country despite being outgunned by rebel forces.
Zuma said, “[W]e are truly proud of our soldiers. Just over 200 of them fought bandits numbering more than a 1,000 people.
“They fought a high-tempo battle for nine hours, defending the South African military base, until the bandits raised a white flag and asked for a ceasefire. Our soldiers inflicted heavy casualties among the attacking bandit forces.
“Our soldiers paid the ultimate price in the service of their country and Africa. We honour them for their bravery and commitment to peace.”
Meanwhile in Durban, Minister of International Relations and Co-Operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said it was a trying time for government as defence officials counted casualties in Bangui.
“Our heroes fell doing what we know best: fighting for peace, security, democracy,” she said.
The ANC branded the South African deployment in Central African Republic as a “peacekeeping” mission. “To us these soldiers were true sons of the continent who were willing to give up their lives in the interest of ensuring peace in the continent,” the party said in a statement. “Their selfless commitment has left an indelible mark in the relations between South Africa and the Central African Republic.”
The SANDF chief General Solly Shoke insists South Africans must be proud of the troops deployed in the Central African Republic. He said the soldiers fought bravely to repel a 3,000-strong Seleka rebel battalion.
According to the version of events offered by the SANDF, South African troops were thrust into conditions that made success unlikely. Their success, then, in holding the base is certainly commendable.
Of course, only time will tell us what really happened in Bengui on Saturday.
Were the South African troops really just defending their base as is claimed, or were they defending the presidency of Francois Bozize?
There is certainly a sense of bravado informing the government’s discourse on the South African military operation in the Central African Republic. Shoke, for one, showed an unflinching boldness in the face of the losses sustained by the South African troops: “For us running away is not an option. That is a force we must be proud of,” he said.
He added that South African troops had agreed to a truce with the rebels after the battle.
“There is a relative truce for them. They are in position. They cannot run away or walk away,” Shoke said.
“The rebels came with a white flag – if someone is carrying a white flag you cannot shoot them,” he said.
Zuma said that one rebel soldier had even sought medical assistance from the South African troops.
“It is worth mentioning that the rebels apologised for having exchanged fire with the members of the SANDF and indicated that they regretted that this had transpired,” Shoke said.
The bravado informing the deployment of South African troops in the Central African Republic did not begin with this weekend’s clashes. On Monday, Independent Newspapers reported through an unnamed source that the country’s military generals and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula had actually advised Zuma in January to evacuate the 26 SANDF troops – who comprised the original deployment – and to abandon their equipment, which “wasn’t much anyway, as the SANDF didn’t have the aircraft to get it out”.
This of course contradicts the pious protestations from Dirco that claimed additional troops were deployed to protect SANDF assets. More significantly, according to this report, Zuma flouted the advice of the SANDF and his own defence minister for the sake of keeping up appearances.
“Zuma dismissed their advice, saying it would look bad if South Africa cut and ran, so he sent in the first batch of 200-odd reinforcements,” Independent Newspapers’ Foreign Editor Peter Fabricus wrote.
On Monday, however, Zuma said Mapisa-Nqakula’s report from her visit to Central African Republic last December “recommended an intervention”.
Government’s original branding of the military operation in Central African Republic a purely technical military operation and not a political one, is slowly being unravelled.
Minister Nkoana-Mashabane claims the South African military operation in Central African Republic is consistent with the country’s foreign policy. According to her, our foreign policy dictates that we work for peace on the continent.
“We can’t turn our backs on our own,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
South African troops, meanwhile, may be in for more fighting.
Reports have emerged that the rebels labelled the South African soldiers as mercenaries. And according to this report, rebels warned the South African troops of another battle on Sunday.
What remains unanswered through the statements from government and SANDF is the reason South African troops in particular came under attack. Why was it the presence of South African troops that blighted peace talks between Bozize and the Seleka rebels? South African troops are not the only foreign military presence in the country.
France has troops stationed at the airport in Bangui; an EU force known as Fomac, or Micopax, is supplemented by troops from Gabon, Cameroon and Congo-Brazaville. There are also Ugandan troops, assisted by the US, trying to hunt down Joseph Kony in the country.
And yet it is the South African troops that were the sore point between Bozize and the rebels.
The situation the troops were placed in this weekend, where they were pinned down by 3,000 heavily armed rebels without any means of support to repel the attack from the air or to assist in the evacuation of badly wounded soldiers, raises questions of the strategic thinking of the senior officials in the SANDF.
Is this the kind of thinking that protects our borders?
Observers of the SANDF peacekeeping missions elsewhere in the continent say South African troops are ill-disciplined, ill-equipped and under-prepared for combat. These observers say that if the South African peacekeeping mission in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is anything to go, by then the losses inflicted on the South African troops in the Central African Republic come as no surprise.
South African troops stationed there are said to have compared poorly to other African forces.
The blame here falls on the commanders and the politicians who send them out to battle. They aren’t preparing these troops for the worst. Most have never seen active combat. One observer of the SANDF relates an anecdote from a South African commander in Goma, who says that when a mortar landed close to the South African base, half the troops stationed there wanted to go home. They were too scared to stay on.
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori. DM
*Additional reporting by De Wet Potgieter.
Photo: Armed South African soldiers talk in Begoua, 17 km (10 miles) from capital Bangui, in this still image taken from video, March 23, 2013. Rebels in Central African Republic seized control of the riverside capital Bangui after fierce fighting on Sunday, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee and raising fears of instability in the mineral-rich heart of Africa. REUTERS/Reuters TV
Some firing squads are all issued with blank cartridges with the exception of one person. This helps alleviate personal responsibility for the execution squad.