Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila is welcomed by his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma during a meeting of leaders from the SADC in Pretoria. File photo: Reuters

Johannesburg - It’s Human Rights Day and South Africans can be reasonably satisfied with the rights they enjoy after almost 20 years of democracy.

Compared with many other places - Central African Republic, (CAR) for instance - this is human rights heaven.

A year ago on Saturday an under-strength and under-armed force of about 225 SANDF soldiers was attacked by Seleka rebels on the outskirts of CAR’s capital Bangui.

Despite a brave fight they were overwhelmed. The Battle of Bangui was a turning point in the fortunes of CAR, for the worse. Much worse.

The Seleka went on to topple President Francois Bozize on March 24.

The mostly-Muslim rebels also turned on the majority-Christian population and for most of the past year CAR has been wrecked by religious violence in which tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

A growing force of international peacekeepers has been unable to do much to curb the pillaging and raping by rival militias of both the Muslim and Christian communities.

In an article for Independent Newspapers, military analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman argues that if South Africa had properly reinforced its contingent in CAR – which was supposed to be training the local army – it could have stopped Seleka’s advance on Bangui a year ago and prevented the human rights tragedy that ensued.

Heitman believes the SANDF has learnt the military lessons of Bangui and applied them to its intervention in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) .

South Africa’s battalion, about 1 300 strong, well-equipped and supported by air power – including Rooivalk attack helicopters, which is part of the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade, has been defeating one rebel group after another – including the once-feared M23 rebels backed by Rwanda.

But has South Africa also learnt the foreign policy lessons of the Battle of Bangui?

A few months before the battle Bozize, Seleka and the internal opposition had signed an agreement to create a government of national unity to prepare the country for new elections.

Seleka demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces, particularly the SANDF.

An international relations official scoffed at the demand, saying if the SANDF withdrew, Seleka would renege on the agreement and take over the country militarily.

His assessment of Seleka’s untrustworthiness was proved correct. Tragically incorrect though was his – and the government’s – assessment of what it would take to stop Seleka.

Equally consequential was the government’s evident lack of a coherent strategy for using its military presence.

Apart from reinforcing the contingent, it should have made clear to both Bozize and Seleka that the purpose of troops was to enforce the political agreement they had made.

Bozize should have been told that unless he kept his end of the bargain - which he began to stray from - South Africa would withdraw its lifeline.

Have these foreign policy lessons been applied in eastern DRC as the military lessons have been?

By defeating rebel armies, the Force Intervention Brigade is certainly helping President Joseph Kabila. But is South Africa making it clear to Kabila that he must stick to the framework agreement he signed in February last year, and which brought the brigade into being?

He is supposed to be reforming the DRC military so that it provides protection to all Congolese, especially those in the turbulent east.

He is also supposed to be rehabilitating his incompetent and corrupt government.

These reforms seem, at best, to be going slowly and some analysts, like Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies, believe Kabila is manoeuvring to cling to power when his constitutional term expires in 2016.

Is Pretoria leaning on him to keep his promises and reminding him that he is in power partly because of the blood and treasure South Africa has invested in his country?

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.

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