The 13 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers who died in battle with the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) on the weekend of March 22 to March 24 in 2013 would not have perished had the president kept his promise to fly in reinforcements to Bangui.

This is according to a former uMkhonto WeSizwe (MK) commander who kept in touch with the Commander In Chief throughout the ordeal. 

Joshua Nxumalo, whose company Serengeti had business interests in the CAR diamond industry, says he kept former president Jacob Zuma abreast of developments that weekend and blames the death of the soldiers squarely on the latter. At the time of the incident, the blame was put on the military top brass for their inaction.

Nxumalo was in charge of recruits to the ANC underground in Swaziland in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was known as General Zhukov - a name all and sundry, including President Zuma, still use to address him.

Because of the co-operation agreement that then president Francois Bozize had with South Africa, the SANDF was training the CAR army, Nxumalo recalls.

Rich in uranium, oil, diamonds and gold, CAR was always a target of foreign looters, Nxumalo says. The French and the Lebanese led the assault on the impoverished central African country’s minerals.

“Right now they are plundering the gold. Only the Lebanese benefit, mostly.”

Also read: How deadly CAR battle unfolded

He describes the Seleka rebels as a ragtag army. It sought to remove the government of Bozize, who was in his second term in office at the time of the attack.

“Bozize wanted to break away from the French claws, turn it into an Anglophone country. He wanted South Africa to help develop CAR.”

Before Bozize made this appeal for help, the apartheid government had long been in CAR “building the biggest runway, and infrastructure”.

Nxumalo adds: “The houses they built are still standing today. Big strong houses.”

When apartheid South Africa had this presence in CAR, Bozize was a high-ranking army officer in President Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s government. Fast-forward to 2013, Nxumalo says Bozize comes to South Africa on the evening of Thursday.

“He sits with Zuma; he explains the critical situation back home. President Zuma, according to Bozize, agrees to send military help to CAR, ready to depart on Saturday morning. To help repel the Seleka advance on Bangui,” says Nxumalo.

“Some of our men were already in CAR, through what was called Operation Vimbezela, from 2007,” he says.

On his way home, Bozize went to Angola for a meeting with former president José Eduardo dos Santos, Nxumalo says.

“Saturday morning he was in Bangui. This was a man who was excited when we saw him at his rooms at the guest house in Pretoria. He was expectant of help arriving at the airport around lunch time. It never came.

“The military people in South Africa stopped picking up telephones. Our men on the ground were left to their own devices.

“Our men were well-trained. They could hold their own against any army. We had the best SANDF troops,” says the former MK cadre.

“If these C130s (army aircraft loaded with supplies) had arrived, our guys would have fought the Seleka off,” he says.

“CAR would not have been what it is now, had Zuma acted. Our troops could not have died,” he says.

“Our boys should not have died. We needed a strong CIC.”

He knows this tale so well because he personally went to see Zuma at MahlambaNdlopfu when the latter returned from an ANC meeting in Polokwane.

“When I got there, there were already people waiting to see him. He saw us last.

“I pleaded Bozize’s case. Zuma turned me down. He started ranting. He said this man (Bozize) had been in power for 10 years. He did nothing for that country. I personally told Zuma, this was no longer about CAR. It was about our boys in Bangui. We need to go rescue those people.”

“We left Zuma at 12 (midnight),” he says.

“On Sunday, he sent aircraft to Uganda, enroute to CAR. I said to myself, this man is not a commander. This man has fears within himself. I told him on Saturday evening that this was going to destroy our reputation on the continent. I was a businessman.

“I had the biggest diamond cutting business in Johannesburg. Serengeti Diamond Cutting Works.

“I lost a client supplying me with stones to cut and polish when I finally decided to go into the continent to look for business. I was employing 160 to 200 workers.

“When I could not get stones in SA, I made my forage into the continent.

“I went there on my own. Sierra Leone. Guinea, Conakry. I was not sent by the ANC. It was my own business.”

Attempts to get hold of Dr Bongani Ngqulunga, former presidential spokesperson, were fruitless.

Weekend Argus