Remembering our fallen soldiers on UN Day of Peace
September 21 is an auspicious day on the international calendar; the United Nations’ International Day of Peace. None of us need to be reminded how necessary such a day is to commemorate and recommit ourselves to the ideals of peace, for the world is beset by many threats; exacerbated by inequality and access to basic resources and rights which spill over all too often into open warfare.
September is an important month for Africa, it’s a time that the African Union dedicates to “silencing the guns” across the continent in its ongoing bid to rid its member nations of conflict.
Both these commemorations are especially relevant to South Africa and its constitutionally mandated armed force; the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Our country has played a critical – and a very proud – role in African peacekeeping since the inception of the SANDF in 1994; from Burundi to the Comoros, the Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Liberia, southern Sudan and Uganda on behalf of a variety of different agencies; from the Southern African Development Community SADC) to the AU and the UN.
South Africa’s involvement with UN peacekeeping stretches all the way back to the organisation’s first ever military intervention in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, where our air force personnel conducted themselves with great honour.
The men and women of the SANDF continue this tradition today: legendary SANDF commander Major General Derrick Mgwebi was the first South African to ever command a UN force when he was appointed to lead ONUB, the special Burundi peacekeeping force. He followed this accolade by being named head of Monusco, the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world at 20 000 soldiers which is based in the DRC.
Monusco is unique in that it has the only UN peace enforcement unit – the Force Intervention Brigade – mandated to engage in military offensives against enemy or ‘negative forces’. The current commander of this brigade is also a South African; Brigadier General Patrick Dube.
The SANDF smashed a glass ceiling in the FIB recently when the commander of the SANDF infantry unit – one of the three combat units in the brigade – was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Tiisetso Sekgobela, a woman, who successfully led our soldiers through a number of battles during her time in command. One of her junior combat officers during this time was Lieutenant Dimakatso Raisibe Maila – the only female Platoon Commander in the FIB.
Another SANDF officer who brought great honour to this country during his tour of duty is Lieutenant Colonel Stefan King of the South African Air Force who has been nominated for the UN’s highest honour for bravery; the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage, for his and his conduct under heavy fire while piloting an unarmed helicopter.
We continue to contribute men and women in uniform, across all our musterings; drawn from the army, the SAAF and the South African Military Health Service to the DRC mission, our navy helps safeguard vital shipping channels for the continent.
We help keep the peace in the continent because, to paraphrase Thabo Mbeki, one of our former commanders-in-chief, we are Africans. If there is no peace in Africa, there is no foundation for the social or economic development of the continent, if there is no unity we cannot address the threat we face holistically and efficiently – and if there is no peace in Africa, there will be no peace in South Africa because our own cities and towns will be bear the brunt of refugees seeking a better life for themselves.
Our own ongoing struggle for a better life in South Africa remains inextricable from our pursuit of a better Africa in a better world, which also underpins our commitment to intervene as we so often do to help in humanitarian crises that befall our neighbours, as happened most recently with the landfall of Cyclone IDAI in Mozambique and Malawi earlier this year.
We have also played a vital role in the creation of what will be the African Union’s inaugural continental army, the African Standby Force (ASF) which is scheduled to be established next year, through our participating in the planning, training and establishment of the interim African Capacity to Respond to Crises (ACIRC), the brigade plus force that is now being harmonized into the ASF.
As we think of peace in Africa, we are profoundly aware that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to handle conflict through peaceful means. It underlines how important our National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security is, aligning ourselves to the UN’s Resolution 1325, – and foregrounding women in the prevention and resolution of conflict, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction.
We have shattered the glass ceiling in our own SANDF with women in unprecedented combat and command roles; our members have died in service of the blue helmet in Africa, giving of their todays so that other Africans can have their own tomorrows. We remember all of them on 21 September – and we pledge to do even more within the severe budgetary constraints that we labour under.
* Siphiwe Dlamini is Head: Communications, Department of Defence.
** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media