High Court orders redacted Battle of Bangui BOI records released

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A legal attempt to access SA National Defence Force (SANDF) records of the March 2013 Battle of Bangui by South African author and journalist Warren Thompson was approved by the High Court in Cape Town.

Thompson, who wrote “The Battle of Bangui, the inside story of South Africa’s worst military scandal since apartheid”, along with James Oatway and Stephan Hofstatter, took the legal route when he was refused access to the military records of the event that saw 15 South African soldiers killed while defending positions in and around the Central African Republic (CAR) capital.

He wanted the deployment reports which formed part of the boards of inquiry (BOI) documentation. Three board of inquiry investigations were conducted in 2013 and 2014.

A 17-page judgement handed down by Judge Nobahle Mangcu-Lockwood on 21 May stated it is not appropriate that the record should be withheld because it provides insightful information about how the battle ensued, including circumstances under which some lives and equipment were lost.

Certain details, including soldiers’ medical records, post-mortems and photographs of the injured and deceased, will be withheld.

The May judgement follows an earlier one in February where Mangcu-Lockhwood was granted access to redacted copies of documentation submitted to the three BOIs dealing with the CAR event, in order to have a ‘judicial peek’ at them before deciding whether to grant Thompson’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) request.

These documents were given to the court with the presiding judge then asking the respondents (The Information Officer: Department of Defence and Military Veterans and the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, at that time Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula) to explain why information relating to injured soldiers is classed “private and personal”, while the same did not apply to dead soldiers. Pretoria News reported this was “bereft of logic and substantiation” adding there is “still no explanation from the SANDF for this distinction”.

The Mangcu-Lockwood judgement reads further it is of “public importance” the documents – apart from details she ordered not be disclosed – be handed over with redactions as specified by her which “will not render the record unintelligible or otherwise affect the quality of its disclosure”.

Her judgement notes further: “there is otherwise no doubt that the subject matter of this application holds significant national importance and public interest. I can do no better than to refer to the Parliamentary briefing by the Minister where she sought to clarify the circumstances under which the soldiers lost their lives in the Battle, an event she referred to as the ‘biggest [loss] in the post-apartheid SANDF’, and in respect of which there was ‘overwhelming reaction of shock and concern’. It was in this regard that she stated as follows: ‘Let me assure all our people that, for us as a democratic government, it is absolutely essential that every South African should be allowed the space to demand accountability, and that government should provide answers that ensure such accountability’”.

Mangcu-Lockwood set aside the October 2019 decision to refuse Thompson’s PAIA request, and ordered the respondents to provide the applicant with the information requested in the PAIA request within ten days of the date of her order, “save that the record provided to the applicant may be redacted insofar as it contains the following: i. The deceased and injured soldiers’ medical records, postmortems and photographs; ii. Descriptions of the military and communication equipment used and lost in the Battle.”

Thompson, the Pretoria News reports, said there are still many unanswered questions regarding the battle and the families of the deceased never got answers. This means that no one has been held accountable for the disaster.

South Africa and the Central African Republic entered into a cooperation agreement in 2006. In 2007 the SANDF formalised defence cooperation with Central African Republic armed forces through a Memorandum of Understanding. This agreement, renewed on 31 December 2012, authorised the deployment of 85 SANDF members and covered training for CAR’s armed forces and protection of the CAR president. South Africa would also assist in implementation of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration and Security Sector Reform.

In January 2013 the SANDF sent an additional 200 soldiers to the CAR after a coalition of rebel groups under the name of Seleka renewed fighting in late 2012, with President Francois Bozizé requesting international assistance to help with the rebellion. Between 22 and 24 March 2013 Seleka rebels clashed with South African troops as the rebels marched towards the capital Bangui, unchecked by African Union, Chadian and French forces. South African troops were caught in an ambush, but acquitted themselves well, killing or wounding an estimated 700 rebel fighters, for the loss of 13 SANDF troops (two later died of their injuries).

Operation Vimbezela, the South African National Defence Force’s military assistance to the country, ended in 2013 after Seleka rebels overthrew Bozize. By this time the SANDF had trained 1 181 soldiers. Over five years, Vimbezela cost more than R246 million; R4.5 million of equipment was lost or written off after the Battle of Bangui.