The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has commemorated the United Nations International Peacekeepers Day during an event at the Mobilisation Centre outside Bloemfontein as it prepares to rotate its soldiers deployed with UN forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
7 South African Infantry Battalion (SAI) is currently deployed in the DRC and is about to be relieved by 2 SAI. The rotation was supposed to begin this week, but the United Nations requested a delay and 2 SAI will only head to the DRC in the next two to three weeks.
7 SAI deployed to the DRC with 850 members, but 2 SAI will only have 800, as the United Nations requested a cut of 50 in order to save costs. The Tanzanian battalion has similarly been reduced by 50.
Chief of the SANDF General Solly Shoke said the South African soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have performed “exceptionally well.” He said there have been several skirmishes but the soldiers have been able to repulse them. No soldiers were lost in these skirmishes.
South Africa’s top general noted that aside from Army soldiers, the SANDF also has an aviation detachment deployed to the DRC, with SA Air Force helicopter pilot Lieutenant Colonel Stefan King nominated for the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage, the UN’s highest peacekeeping award. This was for providing aerial support to UN ground forces under fire on 14 November last year. He dropped flares from the Oryx he was piloting to deter enemy forces.
South Africa has Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters in the DRC and whilst there were talks of the Rooivalk being withdrawn from the DRC due to UN cutbacks, Chief of Joint Operations Lieutenant General Barney Hlatshwayo said the withdrawal of the Rooivalk is not on the cards at this stage and under the agreement South Africa has with the United Nations, it remains part and parcel of the SANDF deployment.
Nardos Bekele-Thomas, Resident Coordinator of the UN and Resident Representative of the UNDP in South Africa, said that South Africa is playing a major role in peacekeeping in Africa as it is the eleventh largest troop contributing country on the continent and the 17th largest overall. The United Nations highly appreciates South Africa’s peacekeeping as well as disaster relief contributions, she told guests at the peacekeepers’ commemoration. She said there are 1 190 South Africans in the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan (the latter two missions have South African police deployed).
The United Nations General Assembly designated 29 May as the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, to honour the memory of the UN peacekeepers who lost their lives in preserving peace. In honour of this day, a wreath laying ceremony was held at the peacekeeper’s memorial at the De Brug Mobilisation Centre outside Bloemfontein. The memorial was unveiled by Shoke on 29 May last year to honour those South Africans who lost their lives on peacekeeping missions.
In addressing the leadership of the SANDF and the families of members who lost their lives, Shoke said that one soldier lost is one too many and is always painful, but “as soon as you join the SANDF, death is part of the job description. We are ready to sacrifice lives for the defence and security of our country.”
“Sometimes people associate the military with violence. That is not the case – we are a peace-loving people,” Shoke said, but cautioned that rivers of blood and curtains of tears result from the pursuit of peace.
“Your loss is our loss. Your grief is our grief,” Shoke told the families of fallen soldiers. “They will forever be remembered for generations to come.” The Department of Defence records 55 South Africans killed since the country became an active troop and equipment supplier to African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) continental peacekeeping and peace support missions. When those killed in Lesotho or the Central African Republic (CAR) are included, the figure increases to around 80.
“As the SANDF we participate in peacekeeping operations to ensure there is peace on the continent. We believe that if there is no peace in our region we will never enjoy peace. That’s why we are part of the international community,” Shoke said. He added that, “we can only be at peace when we are at peace with others.”
Aside from peacekeeping deployments, Shoke pointed out the SANDF had done an exceptional job saving lives during flood relief efforts in Malawi and Mozambique. SANDF assets and personnel have recently been withdrawn from the cyclone relief missions there.