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Top military commanders advised President Jacob Zuma to pull South Africa’s small military force out of the Central African Republic (CAR) when advancing rebels reached the outskirts of the capital a few weeks ago.
Sources said last week the commanders told him they wanted to take out the 26-odd military instructors and abandon their small amount of ammunition and equipment, as they didn’t have the aircraft to fly it out.
But Zuma refused. “He said South Africa cannot be seen to run away, and that a stop had to be made before Africa slid into another series of coups and rebellions like in the 1960s and 1970s,” one knowledgeable source said.
So instead, Zuma authorised the deployment of 400 extra SANDF troops to the country, and immediately deployed about 200 of them on January 2.
Although Zuma justified the deployment constitutionally as a fulfilment of South Africa’s 2007 military agreement with CAR president Francois Bozize to train his military, the SANDF personnel deployed were largely paratroopers and special forces, not trainers, according to military sources.
This reinforces the view that they were sent to stop the rebels advancing on Bangui, not to provide training.
Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, declined to comment yesterday, referring the query to the Department of Defence.
Though the DA and others have criticised Zuma for misleading the South African public by masking the real purpose of the CAR mission, even less charitable interpretations of Zuma’s decision are also circulating.
The fact that he rejected the SANDF’s advice to pull out of CAR has strengthened suspicions that he sent in the troops to protect commercial – probably mining – interests.
But no evidence has emerged of such interests – either Zuma’s or the ANC’s.
Military analysts are nonetheless puzzled as to why South Africa got involved with Bozize in the first place in 2007.
At that time, he was also being threatened by rebels, and asked former president Thabo Mbeki to defend him with a presidential guard.
Government officials from that era said Mbeki turned down that appeal, and instead sent military instructors. Yet it has since emerged that South Africa also sent a VIP protection squad, although its ostensible purpose may have been to train a local squad to protect Bozize.
South African diplomats are now boasting that the deployment of the South African army this month scared the Seleka rebels into agreeing to a ceasefire and joining Bozize in a transitional power-sharing government.
They said the government had rejected a threat from Seleka to pull out of the peace deal unless foreign military forces – including South African “mercenaries” – left the country.
The officials said this would be counterproductive, playing into Seleka’s hands, as fighting would resume if the South Africans withdrew.
Department of Defence spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said: “Any advise the Commander in Chief receives from the chief of the South African National Defence Force is in writing after a thorough appreciation of the matter at hand, therefore the SANDF has no knowledge of any other advice on the Central African Republic other than the contents of the presidential minute that was submitted and signed by the president.” - The Sunday Independent