Major General Dube: the soldier at the pandemic frontline
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By Kevin Ritchie
Major General Patrick Njabulo Dube knows all about pandemics. During his last tour of duty in Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he would tell visitors that his mandate as the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) commander had three legs: security, political and pandemic.
At first it was Ebola, but by the time he finished his extended tour as FIB commander, Ebola – the feared haemorrhagic fever - had been eradicated from the DRC, only to be replaced by Covid 19.
“Thank God, we never lost a soldier to Ebola – or Covid 19,” he said. The battle-hardened general has lost troops in combat though. His voice softens. “It’s never easy to lose a soldier, but I know that every time I put my uniform on, I put my life at risk.”
A lifelong soldier, his career began when he went into exile in the mid-80s to join the African National Congress military wing: uMkhonto weSizwe, training in Angola, East Germany and Russia, before being stationed in Tanzania around the late 80s.
Returning to South Africa during the transitional period, he served in the National Peacekeeping Force, before being integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) as a lieutenant with 2 South African Infantry Battalion (2 SAI Bn) then located in Pomfret, Northern Cape – a long way from his hometown in Umlazi, Durban. He deployed with his platoon on Operation Boleas, when SADC sent in soldiers to Lesotho.
The DRC is where the 54-year old has spent a lot of his career, so much so that he speaks French fluently as well as Lingala and Kiswahili, which is also the official language of Tanzania. He spent time in the DRC as second-in-command of 2SAI in 2003, followed by a secondment to the United Nations Mission in Congo as Battalion Logistics Officer in 2004.
Between 2010 to 2012 he was Senior Staff Officer in a bi-lateral mission between the SANDF and Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) to help the FARDC develop its strategy. The following year, he returned as second-in-Command and chief of staff of the UN’s brand-new FIB as a colonel, while also being responsible for all South African troops at Monusco.
In 2018, he was appointed commander of the FIB. He was supposed to serve a year, but ended up spending two, returning home in July this year in the middle of South Africa’s lockdown as a major general commanding the Infantry Formation, the biggest single constituent part of the South African army.
He is a firm believer in peacekeeping and particularly the work of MONUSCO, having seen the fruits of both the SANDF and the FIB borne out in the DRC. When he deployed as battalion second-in-command, he was pivotally involved in disarming the Mai Mai, a rebel militia, and getting them to integrate with the FARDC. Today some of those rebels are serving officers in the FARDC, and the south of the massive central African country is at peace, with a regular train service running again between Kindu and Lubumbashi in the south, unhindered and unimpeded. The east and the north of the country have been another story, with strife continuing.
“I kept a diary when I went up as the brigade chief of staff, when the FIB was formed. Our task was to neutralise the M23 rebel group; disaffected officers and soldiers from the Congolese army who had been loyal to the previous regime mutinied with their equipment, including tanks and artillery.”
The FIB’s baptism of fire came against the M23.
“People might look down on the South African National Defence Force, sometimes, but when you put us in the battlefield, that’s when you realise the kind of soldiers we have.
“The campaign turned decisively when the South African Air Force was deployed, with the highly potent Rooivalk Combat Support Helicopter debuting its firepower and agility on hard-points that made the FIB ground forces’ manoeuvring difficult.
“We had forced the rebels out of Goma (the main city in eastern DRC), but they had taken up position only seven kms from the airport. We sent the Mi24 helicopters to dislodge them from their positions but that didn’t work. So, we recalled them and sent in the Rooivalk. The next day those rebels were fleeing north to Uganda.”
The FIB also had to deal with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), rebels from neighbouring Rwanda. When he returned as commander in 2018, the battlefield had changed, the new threat came from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel movement originally from Uganda linked to Islamic extremists.
“Our challenge was to capacitate the FARDC, because the UN can’t be there forever,” he says. “We provide logistics support, close air support, medical evacuations and we trained them for joint operations.”
In turn, the FIB provides rear area protection as the FARDC moves forward because the rebel tactic is to disengage, slip away and infiltrate from the rear to terrorise the villagers, killing and maiming indiscriminately.
It is brutal and dangerous. Dube lost seven soldiers - six Malawians and a Tanzanian - in November 2018. Two soldiers are still missing in action. One of the Malawians under his command was posthumously awarded the UN’s highest honour for courage; the Captain Mbaye Diagne medal, last year. Shortly afterwards, SAAF Lieutenant Colonel Stefan King was nominated for the same award after flying an unarmed Oryx helicopter into a firefight with the rebels to protect the FIB troops on the ground.
But the FIB’s work wasn’t just offensive either, Dube and his soldiers spent much time doing humanitarian work, meeting local politicians and winning hearts and minds to try to bring the ongoing conflict to an end.
Just before his original tour was due to end, he received a signal from SANDF headquarters that he would have to stay on. He immediately started planning new operations against the ADF, continuing with the work of disarming Mai Mai self defence units that had gone rogue and keeping the peace in the war-torn east and north of the country.
By the time his second tour was up, the DRC was declared officially Ebola-free and he was on his way home, this time for a brand new assignment as GOC of the SA Army Infantry Formation in a national defence force that has been stretched to the limit this year, with persistent budget cuts, unmatched by an increasing catalogue of responsibilities, over and above peacekeeping and safeguarding the borders.
“The infantry is the core component of the landward defence capability,” he explains, “I always say we are like an Okapi knife, because we are the ones who have to get in close and, if necessary, stab the enemy.”
He is unfazed by the challenges that he faces.
“As soldiers, we don’t say no, we serve. I’m lucky that I have a very energetic Chief of the Army who has made it his priority to ensure we get what we need to ensure that force preparation continues as it should, but we will do the very best that we can, irrespective.”
He’s proud of the success of a recent full-scale battalion group level Exercise Ukuthula that took place at the South African Army Combat Training Centre in Lohatlha, Northern Cape, under pandemic conditions without a single incident. He’s just as proud of the results his troops have achieved as part of Operation Corona, the ongoing border protection, citing the hundreds of millions of Rands worth of counterfeit goods and contraband seized and the interdiction of undocumented people trying to enter the country illegally.
And as the rest of the country gears up for the festive season, there will be no rest for him or the men and women under him.
“This is the time we go to work, so that the rest of the country can enjoy their break and relax in peace. That’s our job. It’s our duty.”