Don’t blame the defence minister for SA deaths in DR Congo – expert

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The deaths this week of another two South African soldiers in the ranks of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) cannot be laid solely at the door of immediate past defence and military veterans minister Thandi Modise.

The deaths in what is believed to be an M23 mortar attack on what South African Department of Defence (DoD) Head of Communication (HoC) Siphiwe Dlamini called “our base” brings to five the South African combat deaths since SAMIDRC first deployed over six months ago in mid-December.

The South African commitment to the regional bloc mission has – almost continually – been under fire from military observers, commentators, academics and South Africa’s largest military trade union. At issue is, among others, the lack of air support for trooping, logistics and medevac purposes as well as insufficient and ageing equipment to take on a well-organised and outfitted opponent.

Respected defence analyst Helmoed Heitman, part of Roelf Meyer’s team responsible for the 2012 Defence Review (approved in 2015), told Johannesburg daily The Citizen the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) faced two major problems – under-funding and “a government that does not understand or care”.

Excluded is Modise, the most recent occupant of the DoD ministerial suite in the Armscor building, and her predecessors. He is reported as saying: “I worked with all of them and they did care and tried to get funding”.

That Heitman has worked with all six of South Africa’s defence ministers since 1994 and prior to that with some overseeing the then SA Defence Force (SADF) is apt tribute to his knowledge and analytical prowess. He was on hand with the then incumbent and now corruption and money laundering accused Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula during the 2013 ill-fated Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR) when 13 crack South African soldiers were killed defending positions against a three thousand-strong rebel force.

On SAMIDRC and specifically South Africa’s involvement in it, he notes a reduced tax base and “high demand” for social services are challenging for “a crippled South African economy”.

“The upshot is that, even if the government wakes up, funds are very tight, with not much room to increase defence funding without shrieks of outrage from those who have to give up some of their funding. So we need to start the process of rebuilding the SANDF.”

Former Democratic Alliance Shadow Defence Minister Kobus Marais told The Star the latest deaths of SANDF soldiers in the DRC is no surprise due to the poor support and resources given to South Africa’s SAMIDRC deployment. “It is now a regular occurrence that our soldiers are returned to their loved ones in body bags.”

“In order to save the lives of our soldiers the president and the SANDF have two options: (1) Provide more funding and resources and logistical support to our soldiers, including ammunition and prime mission equipment and more soldiers. This is unfortunately not affordable and sustainable given the weak GDP and lower defence budget. (2) The alternative is to initiate AU and EAC peace talks for a permanent solution to the eastern DRC conflicts while withdrawing all our soldiers and equipment from the DRC,” Marais stated.

Unlike Heitman, Marais does not believe the conflict is a South African responsibility and has urged the African Union and East African Community to work with the DRC and its neighbours to resolve the conflict. He suggests the SANDF work within its limited budget and focus on security threats closer to home.

Pikkie Greeff, SA National Defence Union national secretary, is quoted by Daily Maverick as saying it is “now blatantly clear certain elements of support are clearly lacking” for SANDF troops in the DRC.

“Air support and capability (medically, logistically and combat-speaking) is the crucial missing cog. Certain radar defence systems are sorely needed. Losing troops in combat is always bad but losing troops due to inadequate resources is unacceptable,” Daily Maverick reports him saying.

Greeff told Newzroom Afrika that, “What we need is support from the South African authorities, and the SANDF. This is by no means the union putting it on the feet of the SANDF, that it is to blame. It is not. It is a resource problem, it is a financial problem. There is a financial crisis in the SANDF and only the government can sort that out. I really think it is time Treasury comes to the party and that we realise that when our soldiers come under attack, this country comes under attack and it needs an adequate response.”

Greeff cautioned that South Africa will continue to suffer casualties in the DRC unless the situation is addressed. “The question is, how many lives must South Africa pay for before we realise that it is a question of finances and somebody really taking a firm decision on the matter,” he asked.

According to military practitioner Tim Flack, the recent attacks on SANDF troops in the DRC have exposed severe gaps in support and resources that are putting soldiers at grave risk. The South African National Defence Union and other experts have made it abundantly clear that there is a dire need for improved air support, medical facilities, logistical capabilities, and combat support, including crucial radar defence systems, he stated.

“The heavy reliance on host nation support for medical needs, air support, logistical support, and reinforcements is proving insufficient. The absence of counter-mortar systems and mortar-detecting radars for early warning leaves our troops exposed and vulnerable.

“The SANDF holds the ultimate responsibility for the safety of its soldiers, whether in joint deployments or otherwise. The repeated attacks and consequent casualties indicate that our troops are not being provided with the necessary tools and resources to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Despite numerous warnings from military experts in South Africa, the lack of adequate response remains a critical issue.

“Our soldiers deserve the best support to carry out their duties and safely return home. The recent attacks have highlighted the severe consequences of inadequate resources and support. Losing lives due to preventable shortcomings is unacceptable. It is time for decisive action to ensure that our troops are equipped with the tools they need to succeed and survive in their mission in the DRC or bring them home,” Flack concluded.

There was, at the time of publishing no communique or statement from either SADC or troop contributing countries (TCCs) Malawi and Tanzania on SAMIDRC mission achievements or setbacks. On 27 May a SADC statement pointed out the importance of complying with international human rights standards with another on 15 May extolling visits by SAMIDRC senior military leadership to bases with a 7 May one indicating action would follow attacks on an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp near Goma. The statement had it SAMIDRC operations to “neutralise” M23 rebels would happen. There has been, to the best of this publication’s knowledge, no follow-up statement on successes or otherwise.