Members of the South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF) carry the mortal remains of 13 members that were killed in Central African Republic (CAR) during the handing over to the respective families at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, in Pretoria. REUTERS/Stringer
Members of the South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF) carry the mortal remains of 13 members that were killed in Central African Republic (CAR) during the handing over to the respective families at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, in Pretoria. REUTERS/Stringer
Cape Town 110623. Shadow minister of defence, David Maynier at a presso on newly acquired information regarding the arms deal. PHOTO SAM CLARK, CT
Cape Town 110623. Shadow minister of defence, David Maynier at a presso on newly acquired information regarding the arms deal. PHOTO SAM CLARK, CT

The deployment of the SANDF to the Central African Republic (CAR) has been a disaster for South Africa. The SANDF has been deployed in the CAR since 2007, providing President François Bozizé with “close protection” under “Operation Morero” and refurbishing military bases and training military personnel under “Operation Vimbezela”.

During this time, an average of between 20 and 30 SANDF soldiers were deployed there at any one time.

However, earlier this year, as the situation in the CAR deteriorated, a further plus-minus 295 soldiers were deployed on or about January 2, ostensibly to provide capacity building to the CAR defence force.

President Jacob Zuma informed Parliament that the SANDF had been deployed to the CAR in a letter to Max Sisulu, Speaker of the National Assembly, dated January 7, in which he stated that:

l He had “authorised the employment of four hundred (400) South African National Defence Force personnel to the Central African Republic, to render support in fulfilment of an internal obligation on the Republic of South Africa towards the CAR”;

l “Members of the SANDF employed will assist with capacity building of the CAR Defence Force and will assist that country with planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process”;

l “The employment is for the period 02 January 2013 to 31 March 2018”; and

l “Expenditure expected to be incurred for the employment is R65 055 000”.

The official reason for the deployment provided to Parliament was never plausible. The SANDF was being deployed into what amounted to a civil war in the CAR, and there would surely have been little opportunity for capacity building.

The impression created was that the real reason for the deployment was to prop up President Bozizé, a former coup leader, or protect party-aligned business interests in the CAR. The expected cost of the deployment, over a period of five years, could also never possibly have been R65m.

I went so far as to make the very serious allegation that President Zuma may have misled Parliament about the deployment of the SANDF to the CAR.

This caused a major flap but in the end the president conceded that there had been an error and disclosed that the real cost of the deployment, over five years, would be R1.2 billion.

This, in turn, raised a further question: why would we be willing to sink over R1.2bn into the CAR when there were no public funds to deploy the SANDF on our notoriously porous borders?

The deployment of the SANDF to the CAR was controversial from the beginning. However, the controversy turned to outrage when news filtered through that SANDF soldiers had been killed by rebel forces in the CAR.

General Solly Shoke, Chief of the SANDF, eventually confirmed, after days of speculation, that 13 soldiers had died, 27 were wounded and one was missing in action. The news shocked the nation.

The SANDF played the best hand it could and said that the soldiers had performed well under fire, in circumstances where they were vastly outnumbered and, it would seem, outgunned by rebel forces.

But this is hardly the point: SANDF soldiers appear to have been left dangling, without the necessary military support, especially air support, which could have proved decisive and might have saved lives. Instead, SANDF soldiers had to beg for essential equipment from French paratroopers deployed in the region.

Furthermore, there was reportedly only one doctor on hand to provide medical support.

The SANDF deployment in the CAR was a military disaster, rather than some kind of military success, as General Shoke would have us believe, and demonstrates the deterioration in the military preparedness of the SANDF.

There is no doubt that the priority must now be to withdraw the SANDF from the CAR, which was, after all, deployed in terms of a Memorandum of Understanding with a government that no longer exists and a president who has fled.

Moreover, the SANDF soldiers are reportedly regarded as “mercenaries” by the rebel force that has now taken over the government. Under these circumstances there seems little left for the SANDF to do in the CAR.

President Zuma should therefore order the SANDF to immediately withdraw from the CAR. The families of the 13 soldiers killed in the “Battle of Bangui” must be trying to understand why their sons died there. That is why it is necessary to conduct a full-scale parliamentary inquiry into President Zuma’s decision to deploy the SANDF in the CAR.

We need the truth. We need to know:

l Whether President Zuma authorised the deployment of the SANDF against the advice of the defence minister and the military command who reportedly recommended, earlier this year, that the 28 soldiers originally deployed in the CAR should be withdrawn;

l Whether the president was warned by senior military officers about the precarious situation in the CAR before taking the decision to deploy more soldiers;

l Whether the president effectively misled Parliament when he informed members of the Joint Standing Committee on Defence that the SANDF was being deployed in the CAR to assist with capacity building of the CAR defence force and to assist with the implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration process;

l Why the Department of International Relations and Development appears to have been frozen out of decision-making on the deployment of the SANDF to the CAR;

l Why the SANDF was deployed in terms of a Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and the CAR rather than a mandate from the UN or AU;

l Why the defence force was deployed in the middle of what amounted to a civil war with so little military support: there were no helicopter gunships to provide air support to SANDF soldiers or transport aircraft to evacuate SANDF soldiers from the CAR; and most important,

l The exact circumstances under which 13 members of the SANDF were killed in the CAR. We will also need access to a number of documents including the seemingly secret Memorandum of Understanding and the various Presidential Minutes authorising the deployment.

I have therefore requested that Max Sisulu, Speaker of the National Assembly, establish a multi-party ad hoc committee to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the deployment of the SANDF in the CAR. The fact is that the SANDF should not have been in the CAR in the first place.

* Maynier is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans

Sunday Independent