Chief of the South African Army Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo addresses journalists at the annual army media breakfast at the South African Army College in Thaba Tshwane yesterday. Picture: KEVIN RITCHIE

Johannesburg - South African soldiers will not be evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo following the outbreak of Ebola fever.

As of Tuesday, the disease had claimed the lives of 1 069 people across West Africa, with a further 1 975 confirmed cases of the deadly haemorrhagic fever, according to the World Health Organisation.

South African Infantry (SAI) battalion, from Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, is currently at the beginning of its year-long deployment to the area as part of the SANDF’s contribution to the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade.

Speaking at the army’s annual media breakfast, the chief of the army, Lieutenant-General Vusi Masondo, said 6 SAI Battalion from Grahamstown had recently returned home on schedule after spending a year in the DRC, to great acclaim from the UN commanders and other officers in the region.

“Their heroics in battles and skirmishes that cut off (the rebel) M23” would be rewarded “with the honour of being awarded the Freedom of Grahamstown on August 28”, he said.

There will also be a parade later this year to award gallantry medals to the second group of soldiers that distinguished themselves in last year’s running Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic, in which 13 SANDF soldiers perished.

The army, Masondo said, had learnt a number of lessons from the battle.

These were now being integrated into doctrine and training for all soldiers, particularly regarding escape and evasion.

“Since our withdrawal from the CAR, the security situation has deteriorated into one where warlords reign supreme at the expense of the vulnerable,” Masondo said.

The South African Army, he said, had made a great difference being there at the time, but there were no plans to recommit forces to the country, unless it was as part of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (Acirc), the interim rapid deployment force to intervene in continental hotspots to prevent civilian suffering.

This was being set up as a stop-gap measure pending the creation of the AU’s standby force next year.

Masondo conceded that the army was struggling under budgetary pressures, including not having proper policies or resources in place to “exit individuals” in a humane way who no longer “fit the profile of being soldiers”.

He also defended the army’s policy of not deploying HIV-positive soldiers into external combat missions, saying it was not fair on the individual or the organisation.

Instead, soldiers who tested positive for HIV are remustered into support roles out of fighting units.

The army, he noted, had to juggle the funds it had, sometimes dipping into funds earmarked for operations to pay troops.

“I don’t want to give details, save to say that we are managing to the best of our ability.”

The army, though, was overstretched, particularly internally, as it now had to be responsible for guarding the country’s borders, deploying 13 companies of soldiers there at any time, of which seven had to be drawn from part-time regiments.

“We have to rely more and more on the reserve forces. We have not fully complied with our border safeguarding mandate.”

The army, though, had helped turn the tide against vehicle and drug smuggling, illegal border crossings, stock theft and rhino poaching, said Masondo.

The army had also helped stabilise volatile situations during the May elections, particularly in Alexandra, Joburg, and built bridges in the Eastern Cape and Hammanskraal.

Masondo said he was particularly happy the Defence Review process was starting to gain momentum, with the advent of the new Badger Infantry fighting vehicle scheduled to come into production next year, and the release of money, “albeit in a phased approach”, to fix derelict bases, maintain or even replace ageing equipment, and rejuvenate the army to allow it to meet its constitutional and continental mandate.

“The funding for the defence force should be two percent of the country’s GDP. There’s always the debate of guns versus butter. A country needs both. The army provides the stability for the economy to grow, to create more jobs,” Masondo said.

The Star