Cape Town - A year after Rifleman Vusumzi Ngaleka was killed in the Central African Republic, his wife sat on a couch in the township where her husband grew up and remembered when they first met at Mimosa Mall in Bloemfontein.
Vusumzi had been wearing civvies and wouldn’t admit he was in the SANDF until he proposed, probably because Connie kept telling him how much she hated soldiers.
“I didn’t like the life they were living – you love that person, you grow attached to them, and then you lose them… but I loved him. Even though he was a soldier, I loved him.”
They married, Vusumzi went to war, and last year he became one of 13 South African soldiers killed in the Battle of Bangui. Two more died of their injuries a few weeks later.
Connie was a widow at 26.
“He was a very sweet child, you know,” said Joyce Ngaleka, his aunt who raised him in Khayelitsha. “Quiet, shy. He liked going to church with his grandmother. He never mentioned wanting to join the army.” But he did, and he loved it, working his way up to 1 Parachute Battalion.
This month has been hard. Connie’s been in and out of hospital all year – “I don’t think I will ever heal” – and Joyce could feel the anniversary of Vusumzi’s death approaching.
Last Sunday Joyce relived one of his last phone calls. “He said, ‘Dabs’ – that’s what he called me, Dabs – ‘I can’t wait to see you all.’ I asked when he was going to be back. He said, ‘Soon. Easter weekend we’re going to be together. We’re just waiting for an answer from Parliament.’”
A week later, staying home from church, she heard the 3pm radio news: “President Jacob Zuma has confirmed that 13 South African soldiers have died in fighting in the Central African Republic…”
Confusion followed, largely because most media had ignored the January press release about the deployment.
“Central African Republic: Is this what our soldiers died for?” speculated the headline over a story about ANC business interests in the region. Articles emerged from 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria of ammunition running out, South Africans killing child soldiers.
At a briefing at Parliament, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula laid down the official line: that a small group of South Africans had been providing training to the CAR national army since 2007; that a rebel alliance called Seleka was marching on the capital in late 2012; that a protection force was dispatched to guard the training force and South Africa’s military assets; that rebels broke a ceasefire agreement with the government; that they were well-armed and well-organised; that 200 fought off thousands and killed hundreds.
“Let me emphasise that we reject any insinuation that these soldiers were sent to the CAR for any reason other than in the pursuit of the national interest and interests of the African continent,” President Jacob Zuma said in a message of condolence. “Our national servicemen died for a worthy cause. They died in defence of the country’s foreign policy… premised on the vision of building a better Africa and a better world.”
Beyond this, the Ngaleka family has been told nothing.
“I think pretty much everyone agrees that they fought well,” said defence analyst Helmoed Heitman.
The real problem is what the official version left out. In his definitive account, The Battle in Bangui: the untold inside story, Heitman listed several major flaws in the operation – not by soldiers on the ground, but by the people who deployed them.
First, despite Zuma authorising the deployment of 400 troops to protect the training unit, only 280 were sent. Another company here, a reinforcement unit there, and Bangui might never have fallen.
“With a full strength of 400, we could quite conceivably have kept Seleka out of town.”
Second, an intelligence failure – that between March and December, the situation had changed, Seleka had swelled by the thousands, and nobody else intended stopping their advance. Not the French. Not the various Eccas (Economic Community of Central African States) troops. Not the national army.
And third – “the cardinal error”, says Heitman – no air support or transport. Even if South Africa had known the true threat Seleka posed, the SANDF “does not have the strategic airlift capacity to quickly fly in reinforcements, deploy combat vehicles, or deploy helicopters for a hot extraction”.
Our army transport aircraft are chartered, and it backfired badly. As the battle raged and the SANDF was making plans to deploy extra equipment, rations, water and support vehicles, word came that not one of the five chartering companies on the army books had the required aircraft available. A civilian company that said it could provide the planes missed the delivery date by six days.
Last June, chief of joint operations Lieutenant-General Derrick Mgwebi wrote, “During the week, all SANDF troops were moved from the base to the airport, rebel fighting continued, most of our troops feared for their lives, even while they were next to the runway.”
DA MP and defence spokesman David Maynier wants somebody held to account. But after a year of trying to get to the bottom of what happened in Bangui, he has little to show for it.
“I have used the full spectrum of options available to me in Parliament,” he said. Asking the Speaker of the National Assembly, and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, to investigate. Submitting written questions in Parliament.
“I have been up against a deliberate and systematic cover-up of what really happened in the CAR here in Parliament,” he said.
Of the positive responses he has received, Mapusa-Nqakula said the lessons learnt included the need to be adequately equipped with strategic air capabilities and that an internal review of what happened in the CAR had been completed. But that review would not be made public “as it contains critical operational information that might compromise our forces in future operations”.
Replying to the Weekend Argus, the SANDF gave no indication this would change and referred the paper to the briefings made last year in Parliament: training the locals, protecting the trainers, valour, honour, dulce et decorum est (“it is sweet and fitting”).
Maynier calls it the “heroic battle narrative” and believes it to be only part of the truth.
“The force commander and his soldiers fought. But in the end 15 soldiers died, with both hands tied behind their backs, because they were drawn into a battle that could not be supplied, in a country where they should never have been deployed,” he said. “And yet nobody has ever been held accountable for what amounts to the biggest military disaster in democratic South Africa. We all have to face the terrible fact that we failed the families of the soldiers who want to know the truth about why their sons died in the CAR.”
On Saturday, March 23, last year, Vusumzi – the man with three phones, who spoke to his wife four or five times a day – called Connie for the last time.
“He said things were not fine. He said, ‘If my phone’s off, just know there’s no signal’.”
Later that night, she tried calling Vusumzi. She tried his comrades. Nobody answered. About 4 000km away, at a Y-junction just outside Bangui, night had fallen on a group of South African paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion. They had been ambushed by a strong rebel force, wrote Heitman: “Caught in an impossible position, they left the vehicles and fought themselves clear of the ambush, some in hand-to-hand fighting… evading groups of rebels, they made their way back into the base, one large group making their final dash.”
Vusumzi was not part of the group that made it back. On Monday morning, March 25, Joyce got a phone call.
“They were asking ‘Are you Joyce Ngaleka? Where are you?’ I knew something was wrong. I said, ‘Stop asking me my name and get to the point’.”
In the background, she could hear screams. It was Connie.
The living room in Khayelitsha was quiet for a while after that, except for sniffs and the sound of a child playing somewhere in the background, Vusumzi’s child.
Buhle, 3, was called in and dutifully climbed up on to an aunt’s knee. She sat quietly in the room of crying adults.
If Heitman’s story is the closest available version of the truth about the Battle of Bangui, nobody’s ever told it to the Ngaleka family. “We wanted to know exactly what happened,” said Joyce, “but we only saw what was on the news on TV. We don’t know how they attacked them, how he died.”
It was a few minutes before Connie spoke. “My baby looks just like him.” You could see it, too – those same dreamy-lidded eyes under a camouflage cap. Buhle smiled shyly. “I cry every time I see her. She asks me every day, ‘Where is daddy?’ I don’t know what to tell her.”