Pretoria - The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has explained its role in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), stating that it was in that country on a peacekeeping mission and not to engage the M23 rebels.
“Our role is to make sure that UN property, personnel and the local population are safe,” the SANDF’s chief of joint operations, Lieutenant-General Derrick Mgwebi, said at a media briefing in Pretoria on Wednesday.
The M23 rebels have been occupying Goma for more than a week, but they agreed on Tuesday to leave following a deal struck at talks in Uganda.
Mgwebi said the SANDF had been in the DRC for almost 10 years as part of Operation Mistral.
He added that the SANDF had contributed soldiers to the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC.
“The Indian battalion is in charge of operations in the DRC. Our responsibility is mainly to protect our bases,” said Mgwebi.
He said the DRC government had approached the Southern African Development Community (SADC) with a view to asking for assistance.
According to Mgwebi, the SANDF is to participate as part of the SADC, if ordered to do so.
“But at this stage, the responsibilities fall under the commander of the Indian battalion in the area,” he said.
Asked what advice he could give politicians on handling the situation in the DRC, Mgwebi said he was not in a position to offer advice.
“It is my view that the challenge starts with the government itself,” he said.
“The government should have spread its footprint to all areas and the opposing parties should listen and meet each other halfway.”
Mgwebi said he had information that the DRC armed forces withdrew from Goma on the day the M23 rebel group took control of the area.
“The information I have is that the commander of the armed forces has since been suspended,” he said.
Mgwebi said most of the local people fled to some of the SANDF’s bases soon after the M23 occupied Goma.
Turning to the SANDF’s border patrols, Mgwebi said South Africa had experienced an increase in livestock theft and movement of illegal weapons across its borders.
The country had, however, so far during the current financial year, recorded a decrease in the number of undocumented persons crossing its borders and the amount of contraband seized.
The number of undocumented people crossing the country’s borders was 13 316, compared with 15 904 in 2011/12, and 20 107 in 2010/11.
According to Mgwebi, the number of chickens and other livestock stolen had gone up from 1 373 in 2011/12 to 8 630 in this financial year, while the number of stolen vehicles recovered had risen from 61 to 64.
Mgwebi said 414 criminals were arrested during the 2011/12 financial year. The number during this financial year was 371.
Most of the undocumented persons were detained in Mpumalanga (6 178), while 4 915 were detained in Limpopo, 1 698 in the Free State, 416 in KwaZulu-Natal, and 109 in the Eastern Cape, Mgwebi said.
He said the SANDF had to do patrol work on the country’s borders with Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, covering a distance of 4 471km.
The SANDF also had to perform maritime border patrols (2 798km) and air patrols (7 660km).
“We will never have enough manpower to cover [these areas]. We have to have a good appreciation to do what is expected to be done,” he said.
Mgwebi said there were no SANDF patrols of the borders with Botswana and Namibia.
“We have gone back, but the government ordered us to withdraw.”
Discussions were under way to restore the border patrols, said Mgwebi.
Most stolen vehicles were making their way to Mozambique. Most of these vehicles were luxury 4x4s.
Touching on rhino killings in the country, Mgwebi said 10 poachers had been killed during the first and second quarters of the operation in the Kruger National Park.
Seven poachers were arrested during the first quarter and 20 during the second quarter.
Hunting rifles, saws, cellphones and backpacks containing rhino horns were confiscated during these operations.
Mgwebi said in terms of their analysis, most of the people involved in rhino killings were Mozambicans.
“But these are just operators and not the ‘big guns’. It is the work of the police to trace them,” he said.
On the question of the SANDF’s possible deployment to curb gang violence on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, General William Nkonyeni said this could happen only if there was an order from President Jacob Zuma.
“However, it should be noted that throughout the year, we are involved with various security agencies, reviewing security needs.”