In a democracy, the deployment of a country’s soldiers in a foreign land should be a moment of high constitutional importance. It should also be a moment of personal moral anguish for the president who serves as commander in chief of the military. After all, the president may well be using his immense powers to send fellow men and women to their deaths, hopefully in order to pursue an important constitutionally justifiable objective. As the unfolding fiasco in the Central African Republic (CAR) illustrates, this has not been the case in South Africa. Perhaps it is time to ask why and to demand some answers.
When George W Bush and his lapdog Tony Blair decided to invade Iraq on the basis of bogus intelligence about the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq (weapons which never existed), more than a million people marched through the streets of London to oppose the invasion. However, in the US there was almost no protest from the population at large, perhaps because most US citizens had been whipped into a frenzy by a post 9-11 jingoistic and uncritical media which cheered on the disastrous invasion of Iraq. In the end thousands of US troops were killed in the misadventure and billions of dollars wasted on a war that America should never have been involved in.
It has always been perplexing to me that South Africans seem so uninterested in potentially life and death decisions taken by our various presidents to deploy troops in foreign countries. There has been no debate about the strategic or financial objectives involved in such decisions. Neither has there been any debate about the enormous financial cost involved in deploying our troops elsewhere on the continent. Questions about whether South Africa should act like the US of Africa, acting as the imperial bully boy of the continent by propping up friendly regimes and destabilising regimes seen as unfriendly have also not been asked.
When would it be acceptable for our president to send South African men and women into harm’s way? Would it be acceptable to send troops into a war zone to take part in peacekeeping missions sanctioned by the African Union and United Nations elsewhere on our continent? Personally, I would suspect that many South Africans would support such actions – even though the money spent on such missions could also be used to buy school textbooks or build school libraries.
But what if there is no UN or African Union backing for a mission? What if we send troops to protect the financial interests of private South African mining companies: would that ever be a good idea? What if we send troops to protect a president who came to power in a coup d’état – as was the case in CAR? Is it acceptable from a strategic, moral and financial point of view to send troops into harm’s way to pursue the vague objective of promoting regional peace and security in a part of the world whose political instability does not directly impact on South Africa?
It is exactly because these are fundamentally important questions that section 201 of the Constitution requires the president to inform Parliament “promptly and in appropriate detail” of the reasons for the deployment of the defence force; any place where the force is being deployed; the number of people involved; and the period for which the force is expected to be deployed. The Defence Act further requires the president to inform Parliament about the estimated cost of any such deployment.
What we do know is that some South African troops were deployed in CAR as part of a VIP protection unit to personally protect the now deposed president Francois Bozize. In 2011 the Department of International Relations and Cooperation explained the mission to CAR as follows: “SANDF deployment in the CAR is divided into two mainly OP MORERO – a unit of the SANDF Special Forces that was deployed in CAR to provide VIP protection to President Bozize and Operation Vimbesela – the SANDF’s mission involved in the refurbishment of the military bases and the training of the military personnel on that country.”
Others were deployed to assist with the training of the CAR army. When extra troops were sent to CAR in January, we were told these troops were deployed for the following reasons: “The employed members of the SANDF will assist with capacity building of the CAR Defence Force and will also assist CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and re integration processes.”
Today we were told a different story, namely that the extra troops were sent to protect South Africa’s assets. But Reuters now quotes “regional peacekeeping sources” to the effect that our soldiers on Saturday had fought alongside CAR soldiers to defend the capital. The president contradicted this today, claiming the soldiers were defending their base against an attack. As is often the case in a war, all these claims should be treated with circumspection.
But if it is true that South Africa fought alongside CAR soldiers against the rebels, it would not be surprising. After all, if the mandate of some of your deployed troops is to serve as the private VIP protection unit of the president under siege, then all your troops – also those ostensibly deployed to help train the CAR army – may very well be sucked into fighting to give that president time to flee from advancing rebels.
At the time of writing we are awaiting further information about the safety of our troops stationed in CAR. All we know is that at least 13 soldiers were killed (one is still missing) and 27 have been injured. We have no idea how they will make it out of there safely or whether, god forbid, we will send more troops to CAR.
But what is astonishing is that the South African public has not really been told what the strategic reasons for the deployment of the troops in CAR might have been. What did South Africa get out of sending troops to CAR to act as a VIP protection force of the president? Why were we spending money on the deployment of troops to train the army of a president who originally came to power in a coup? Were there other – perhaps private financial – reasons for the deployment?
Maybe it is time for the South African public (as well as the members of Parliament) to start asking the difficult questions about our military involvement in the internal affairs of another sovereign state? Do we really want to become the bully boy of Africa? I don’t think so. Not only can we not afford it, but as a matter of principle we should surely not ever get involved military in another sovereign state unless we form part of a United Nations or African Union peacekeeping force. And how is South Africa going to get the remaining troops safely out of CAR?
Is it not time for ordinary South Africans to raise their voices against our military involvement in the sovereign state of another African country and to begin to act more like those millions people in Britain who saw through the half-truths and the lies of Bush and Blair and protested against the invasion of Iraq and less like the pliant post-9-11 American public who allowed their soldiers to be sent to Iraq to be killed and maimed in their thousands? DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.