Don’t act shocked. The death of 13 South African soldiers is a tragedy, but so was the Central African government of Francois Bozize – a nasty, corrupt leader who embodied all the worst stereotypes about African leadership, and whose regime South Africa supported until the bitter end. If you’re surprised it came to this, then you weren’t paying any attention to begin with. We all should have been.
“It is a sad moment for our country,” said President Jacob Zuma as he cried crocodile tears at a press conference on Monday in which he confirmed the reports that 13 South Africa soldiers were killed in fighting in the Central African Republic. He’s right though, this is a sad day: the loss of any South African soldier is a tragedy, and the death of 13 of them, in a faraway country that has little to do with us, an even greater loss.
But what, exactly, were those 13 men – and the 27 who were wounded in the fighting, and all the others who made up the 200-strong contingent – doing so far away from home?
There are a variety of official explanations on offer. They were assisting the country with “capacity building of the CAR Defence Force” and the “disarming, demobilisation and re-integration” of rebels, said the presidency in January. No, said deputy minister of international relations and cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim, the troops were there because “we have assets that need protection”, although he declined to specify what these were. On Monday, another justification was put forward by Zuma, who argued that the soldiers died in the service of “peace and democracy”.
Whatever the official rationale, the reality on the ground was clearer: South Africa was protecting CAR President Francois Bozize and propping up his notoriously corrupt and inefficient regime, even as Bozize recklessly reneged on provisions of the peace agreement which had temporarily halted the rebel advance. We weren’t the only country to do so. France and several Central African nations (most notably Chad) also had troops on the ground in the service of maintaining the status quo. Without this international protection, Bozize would have been toppled months ago. But resistance was so strong that he could not survive even with it.
Bozize is not exactly the kind of leader that a progressive, forward-thinking nation like South Africa should be associating with, never mind actively encouraging. His government comes near the bottom of almost every indicator of governance, but near the top of all lists relating to corruption. Opposition is not tolerated, and security forces have been regularly accused of detaining critics without trial, stifling free speech and torturing dissidents. Nepotism is rife, with the cabinet and all top government posts stuffed with family and friends, a trend which peaked when he appointed his completely unqualified son as minister of defence.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the type of government that President Zuma wishes to risk South African lives to protect. After Nkandla, Marikana and the Secrecy Bill, it’s clear that his administration shares some of Bozize’s tendencies – if not, for now, his excesses.
We should, however, be surprised – and ashamed – that we let it happen, through a failure of media scrutiny and a complete lack of public interest.
Let’s start with the media. When the rebellion in CAR gathered steam in January this year, there were already a couple of dozen South African troops in the country. The announcement to send reinforcements – an extra 400 soldiers, although not all have yet been deployed – came later that month, to a muted reaction from journalists. Most publications ran wire copy on the subject from Reuters, Agence France-Presse or Associated Press. Some didn’t mention the news at all. And that was about it. There was very little critical coverage of why the troops were being sent, what their role would be, and whether it was worth it.
Once again, South African media got its priorities entirely wrong: we devote thousands of vitriolic column inches to non-stories like Speargate, and yet remain silent when it comes to South Africa staging an armed intervention in another country, risking the lives of hundreds of soldiers.
Partly, this has to do with an alarming shortage of journalists who are even vaguely conversant with modern African politics and history. For most journalists in this country, the Central African Republic is so far removed from their knowledge base that they are in no position to contradict official statements emanating from the presidency, so they don’t – even when they would never accept a government spokesperson at his or her word on a domestic issue which they understand.*
But media, for better or worse, is shaped by demand, and the truth is that we as South Africans just aren’t very interested in Africa generally, and have shown little or no appetite for news about where our troops are or what they are doing on the continent. Most South Africans would have been unaware of our deployment in CAR, and many remain unaware of other major deployments as part of peace-keeping forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.
Fact is, South Africa is a military power that likes to project its military force on this continent of ours. Like all power, it needs to be checked and balanced, and it is our responsibility as journalists and citizens to do so. This requires active engagement in the issues and an effort to broaden our understanding of this continent we inhabit. Let’s use the fiasco in CAR to learn this lesson. DM
* The Daily Maverick did better than most, with a primer outlining the background to the conflict in CAR , but we too were guilty of neglecting the situation once the troops were already on their way.
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