South Africa’s options for helping Mozambique fight its insurgency


There is now finally some level of understanding in South Africa and within the SADC that the growing conflict in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province is not something that can be safely ignored. ‘Finally’ because this conflict is hardly new; ‘some level’ because there are many in South Africa who simply fail to grasp that South Africa’s interests are affected by what happens elsewhere in the region. There is, of course, another ‘finally’, Mozambique has finally realised that there is a problem and that they cannot deal with it alone and has apparently approached South Africa for help.

South Africa should certainly look into helping Mozambique with this problem: We do not need Islamist terrorism – or any other terrorism – in the region; we need access to electricity from Cahora Basa and access to Mozambique’s gas fields – the largest of which lie off that particular province; and a stable and prosperous Mozambique will make a better neighbour and a better customer for our exports. We also need to think about the risk of the terrorists in Cabo Delgado branching out into piracy in the Mozambique Channel, which carries most of our imported oil and a lot of our export trade.

So far, so good. But what can South Africa do? There are two issues to consider here: The first is the extent to which the Defence Force has been allowed to decline, with much of its major equipment not adequately maintained and some real limits on training as a result of persistent underfunding. The second is what can usefully be done to help Mozambique quite apart from the limitations of the Defence Force.

That second factor actually needs to be considered first. As I discussed in a previous article, a key question is the actual nature of the conflict in Cabo Delgado. Is it a true insurgency with a real measure of local support? If so, we should not even think of deploying ground forces into the area unless the situation spirals entirely out of control with spill over into Malawi, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The track record of foreign forces against true insurgencies is not a good one. Essentially a true insurgency can only be decisively defeated – perhaps overcome is a better term given the multi-disciplinary effort required – by local forces.

Assuming for the moment that it is a true insurgency, that does not mean that South Africa has no options: We could – always funding permitting! – provide communications intelligence support; aerial reconnaissance (Gripen with its thermal pod); aerial surveillance (if the reports of Defence Intelligence having acquired Seeker 400s are correct); and naval interdiction off the Rovuma River mouth to prevent supplies reaching the insurgents. And we could help with the training of the Mozambique security forces and of other Mozambique government agencies that must deploy to address the real grievances in the province. We could also provide some mine-protected vehicles to the Mozambique Army and Police.

If, on the other hand, the conflict is pure politico/religious terrorism lacking much local support or a guerrilla/terrorist campaign funded by outsiders for political or economic purposes, there is more that could be done. Then South Africa could deploy Special Forces for intelligence gathering and perhaps specific ‘kinetic’ operations, and could deploy Oryx helicopters to give the Mozambique forces greater mobility and even the Rooivalk to provide accurate close air support when needed. A deployment of normal ground forces would still be a last resort option and would be problematic given the shortage of deployable infantry and the numbers required for the DRC deployment and border patrols.

I use the word ‘could’ throughout because any serious support to Mozambique will require funding in addition to the present budget: The Air Force would need additional flying hours funded, the Navy would need to first get more ships operational and then have their deployment and operations funded, and any Army deployment would also require additional funding.

A final point to make would be that, having first developed an accurate intelligence picture and then decided to intervene, we must do it properly with force levels adequate to whatever level of intervention we have decided on. We do not want to again have troops hung out to dry as happened in Bangui.

Written by Helmoed Romer Heitman.