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Two SANDF troops killed, three injured in mortar explosion in eastern DRC

Two SANDF troops killed, three injured in mortar explosion in eastern DRC
South African National Defence Force soldiers. (Photo: Gallo Images / Roger Sedres)

The soldiers had only begun being deployed two months ago as part of a regional force to tackle Rwanda-backed rebels.

Two South African soldiers were killed and three injured when a mortar shell exploded inside their military base in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Wednesday.

They had only recently been deployed as part of the Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) which has a mandate to neutralise armed groups, particularly the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels. 

The DA has now called for the troops to be withdrawn because it said South Africa did not have an interest in the fight in eastern DRC. It added that the South African troops were not properly equipped to fight the rebels who are believed to have recently acquired surface-to-air missiles.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: SADC troops return to DRC with tough mission as critical regional tensions boil over

Read more in Daily Maverick: South African soldiers and their UN special force in eastern DRC have gone off track

The South African National Defence (SANDF) announced the deaths and injuries on Thursday. It said that at about 1.30pm on 14 February a mortar bomb had landed inside one of the military bases of the South African contingent of SAMIDRC “that is deployed to support and assist the government of DRC in its effort to bring peace, security and stability in that region”. 

“As a result of this indirect fire, the SANDF suffered two (2) fatalities and three (3) members sustained injuries. The injured were taken to the nearest Hospital in Goma for medical attention. 

Why are they sacrificing soldiers’ lives when we know they’re not well resourced, and we don’t have the logistical and air support?

“Details of this incident are still sketchy at the moment, further investigation will be conducted to determine the basis of the incident. 

“The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Ms Thandi Modise, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Mr Thabang Makwetla, the Acting Secretary for Defence, Dr Thobekile Gamede and the Chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya express their heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased soldiers and wish the injured members a speedy recovery.”

The SANDF contingent began deploying on 15 December 2023. SAMIDRC also mainly comprises troops from Tanzania and Malawi though it is believed other SADC countries have provided some support.

SANDF soldiers with South African Police Service members. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

‘Shocking’ 

DA defence spokesperson Kobus Marais said the casualties were “shocking and very sad”, but added that this was “exactly what we’re concerned about and what we warned about”. 

“It’s very disappointing to be correct about this. It seems our judgement is better.

“We should withdraw until we have direct interest and we can provide the resources to fend off the new SAM systems the rebels are using,” Marais said, referring to reports that the Rwandan defence force has deployed surface-to-air (SAM) missiles in eastern DRC in support of the M23 rebels. One report said one such missile had been fired at an observation drone of the UN peacekeeping force Monusco last week but had missed its target. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Congo rebels warn sadc intervention force that they are ready to fight

Marais told Daily Maverick that although the SANDF casualties had been the result of a mortar attack “my information is the latest SAM munitions are far more advanced and more lethal”. 

“We as a nation have no direct interests there, and the conflict has no direct impact on our national security. So why are they sacrificing soldiers’ lives when we know they’re not well resourced, and we don’t have the logistical and air support?

“This is while SADC is withdrawing from Cabo Delgado, where we’ve a direct interest, and it presents a direct threat to our national security,” Marais added, referring to the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) which includes a substantial SANDF contingent and has been fighting Islamic State-linked insurgents for more than two years. SAMIM is now scheduled to withdraw by July 2024 though it has not defeated the insurgents completely. 

Marais said South Africa should withdraw its forces from SAMIDRC until it established that its national interests, especially national security, were at stake, at which point it could reconsider. 

Rwandans are smart enough to know that it’s an election year in South Africa. Casualties are not going to make Ramaphosa look good.

“Our first priority should be our own land – and maritime borders – and rebuilding our prime mission equipment capabilities,” he said. 

Stephanie Wolters, a senior research fellow and DRC expert at the South African Institute of International Studies, suggested that the M23 and Rwanda might have intended this early attack to make President Cyril Ramaphosa look bad in an election year and to intimidate the SADC force. 

She added, though, that it was not yet known who had fired the mortar. 

“But SA and the SANDF knew it was getting into an active war zone and that it has an offensive mandate to go after the M23. So, obviously it would have had to anticipate during its planning that there was the possibility of casualties.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Heroes and victims: SA’s fallen CAR troops

“I think the fact that they are coming so early on is obviously a blow to the military and the government. What we’ve seen in the last few weeks, in terms of increased pressure in the area, the taking of [the town of] Sake and the increased pressure on [the provincial capital] Goma is because the M23 and the Kinshasa government have been under a lot of pressure to negotiate. 

“And also because the M23 does want to intimidate the SADC force. The Rwandans are smart enough to know that it’s an election year in South Africa. Casualties are not going to make Ramaphosa look good – even if most of the electorate don’t care about that kind of stuff. 

“SA is already making an issue out of it. So there’s no question that the M23 and Rwanda are calculating that inflicting these kinds of losses on the South African contingent is potentially a political blow to Ramaphosa and that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. So they’re trying to intimidate the SADC force.” DM

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