7 Med Brigade ops medic named as latest SANDF fatality in the DRC

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The Department of Defence (DoD) by way of its head of communication yesterday (Thursday, 6 June) told South Africa the country lost a specialist military medical operator when a Southern African regional bloc force clashed with M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a week ago.

Thirty-nine-year-old Sergeant Mbulelo David Ngubane died while administering medical assistance to wounded soldiers in what Head of Communication (HoC) Siphiwe Dlamini said in a statement was an ambulance “clearly marked with large medical symbols on both sides and on top, depicting a medical vehicle”.

Unconfirmed reports suggest a mortar round fired by the M23 went through an open hatch of the Mfezi armoured ambulance Ngubane was inside.

South Africa, at present with only two other Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states – Malawi and Tanzania – form the regional bloc mission (SAMIDRC) based in the eastern DRC. The mission has been operational since December and its mandate is currently said to expire on 15 December – just over seven months away.

The ops medic, as the 7 Medical Battalion Group specialists are known with respect to their medical and military skill levels, was officially the fourth SA National Defence Force (SANDF) uniformed staffer to die while serving under the SADC SAMIDRC flag. The first deaths came in February as a result of an M23 mortar attack on a SAMIDRC base, with Captain Simon Mkhulu Bobe and Lance Corporal Irven Thabang Semono killed. A third soldier died from what was termed in an earlier DoD statement as “challenges experienced while receiving health treatment”.

Reports in April have it the Tanzanian component of SAMIDRC lost three soldiers with a further three injured in a mortar attack. Further Tanzanian casualties were reported but not confirmed in last week’s attack.

The DoD statement, refers to the contact between M23 and SADC forces as “unfortunate” adding it happened “even though the Geneva Convention on Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) clearly stipulates categories of protected persons and objects like medical personnel, medical transport in particular and other establishment (sic) of this nature during an armed conflict”. The “act” goes against “established international norms in the conduct of armed conflict”.

Memorial service and funeral details will be made known in due course.

The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thandi Modise, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thabang Makwetla, the Acting Secretary for Defence, Dr Thobekile Gamede, and the Chief of the South African National Defence Force, General Rudzani Maphwanya, expressed their condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Ngubane.

In addition to the death of Ngubane on 30 May, over a dozen SANDF soldiers were injured, some of them seriously, after coming into contact with the M23 at Sake, 25 km from Goma. Apparently a dozen M23 rebels were also killed, and a South African Mamba and a Casspir were captured along with a Tanzanian IVECO truck.

On 31 May, the M23 claimed its fighters had attacked and set on fire an armoured vehicle belonging to the SANDF in Mubambiro, on the outskirts of Goma, and shared a video of smoke emanating from the vehicle while parked on base. The M23 said SAMIDRC vehicles were subsequently evacuated to the Goma city centre.

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier said the reports emanating from the DRC are “deeply worrying. SANDF troops in with the SADC mission in the DRC are under-equipped for the task and at unnecessary risk.”

He warned that while the SANDF has sufficient resources, on paper, to be able to handle a threat with this type of equipment, severely low funding levels have sharply reduced availability and the ability to deploy these assets. That South Africa hasn’t sent any air support is the most obvious example. “The force needs proper support, funding, and equipment. It’s not a peacekeeping force, it should not be armed like one.”

“South Africa is seeing the consequences of decades of underfunding of the SANDF relative to its size and the missions that the country has mandated it perform, as well as allowing for a culture of complacency both in Cabinet and the military command councils. The cost will be steep,” he concluded.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed up to 2 900 SANDF soldiers to SAMIDRC until mid-December. SAMIDRC will fill much of the gap left by the departure this year of the United Nations mission (MONUSCO) in the DRC. Apart from confirmation of 2 900 South African military personnel being contributed under Operation Thiba at a cost of R2.37 billion, there is no information from the SADC on Malawian and Tanzanian troop numbers that will make up the rest of the 5 000-strong SAMIDRC force.