SANDF peacekeeping efforts continue in Africa


South Africa has engaged in over a dozen peace missions since democracy as it recognises that its destiny is linked to the Southern African region and for this reason continues to support peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Brigadier General Kwezi Nompetsheni from the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) Joint Operations Division pointed out that South Africa’s foreign policy recognises that South Africa’s destiny is inextricably linked to that of the Southern African region.

“Regional and continental integration is the foundation for Africa’s socio-economic development and political unity, and essential for our own prosperity and security. Consequently, Africa is at the centre of South Africa’s foreign policy. Peace, stability, and security are essential preconditions for development.”

As a result, South Africa promotes peace and security with emphasis on Africa and improving cooperation between the United Nations Security Council and regional organisations such as the African Union Peace and Security Council. “Our struggle for a better life in South Africa is intertwined with our pursuit of a better Africa in a better world.”

Nompetsheni, speaking at a recent conference in Pretoria, noted that the Department of Defence has been involved in 14 peace missions since 1999 in Africa, with South Africa being one of the largest contributors to peace-keeping missions.

These missions have included the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission in Lesotho in 1998; the African Union mission in Eritrea/Ethiopia in 2000 (staff officer deployment); the African Union mission in Burundi from 2001 (which saw an infantry battalion deployed); the African Union mission in the Comoros in 2002 (military observers, police and Foreign Affairs officials); the African Union/UN mission in Sudan (which saw an infantry battalion deployed) and Liberia (staff officers).

A number of missions have taken place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) including Mission Thebe which involved the training of Congolese government (FARDC) forces; Operation Teutonic (multilateral training assistance in the DRC with Belgium); and Operation Mistral, South Africa’s support of the United Nations mission there. In addition, Team Bulisa was security sector reform assistance for the DRC.

SANDF peace support operations have included Operation Montego (the UN mission in Liberia); Operation Pristine (the AU/UN Mission in Côte d’Ivoire); Operation Vimbezela (military assistance to the Central African Republic); Operation Induli (military observers deployed to the UN mission in Nepal); Operation Cordite (the AU/UN mission in Darfur); Operation Espresso (UN/AU missions in Eritrea/Ethiopia); Operation Bongane (the AU observer mission covering the Lord’s Resistance Army ceasefire in southern Sudan/Uganda); Operation Fibre (the AU/UN mission in Burundi), Operation Curriculum (Burundi); and Operation Triton I-IV (electoral assistance to the Comoros).

Operation Mistral in the DRC is the SANDF’s biggest deployment and one that has seen considerable successes. Nompetsheni said operations restored the positive image of the SANDF after the Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic and provided a different perspective for those that doubted the capabilities of the SANDF.

Nompetsheni said the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) that was established in the DRC in 2013 was unique in that it was tasked to carry out targeted offensive operations to neutralize and disarm groups considered a threat to state authority and civilian security.

The FIB has been comprised of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian soldiers and was instrumental in the surrender of the M23 rebel group in late 2013 after South African Rooivalk attack helicopters arrived in the DRC.

Nompetsheni said that FIB operations gave the DRC government leverage in negotiating the fate of M23, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and other illegal armed groups. “The success of the FIB proved to be effective in the regional arrangement of collective security.”

However, he noted that the success story of the FIB comes against the backdrop of ageing SANDF equipment that needs serious attention in terms of rejuvenation. This is just one challenge facing South African forces in the DRC. Others include hostility from the DRC (which sometimes makes flight clearances difficult to obtain), a lack of serviceable equipment (the UN will only reimburse equipment that has a 90% serviceability level), a lack of dedicated strategic airlift, cumbersome procurement processes, and overstretched air/sea lines of communication which implies long reaction times.

On the human resource side, Nompetsheni said there are shortages in qualified personnel (doctors, psychologists, pilots, etc.), a lack of proficiency in local languages (French) and the disqualification from deployment (due to offences and medical reasons) impacts troop numbers.

The shrinking defence budget has affected equipment renewal, resulting in an increase in the downtime of operational requirements. Ageing ammunition and unserviceable equipment “will have a huge impact on the safety and effectiveness of peacekeeping operations,” Nompetsheni said.

He identified a lack of quality leadership as one of the biggest challenges facing the mission in the DRC, which is tasked with defeated over 30 armed rebel groups. The UN must be robust not only through its military, police, and civilian personnel in the field, but in its political behaviour as well, actively seeking solutions rather than waiting for casualties to stop.

Nompetsheni said that fatalities rarely occur as a result of troops and leadership taking action and the rules of engagement should support taking action, and not be used to justify inaction. “To deter and repel attacks and to defeat attackers, the United Nations needs to be strong and not fear to use force when necessary.” Missions should go where the threat is, in order to neutralise it, he said. Waiting in a defensive posture only gives freedom to hostile forces to decide when, where and how to attack the United Nations.

“Missions should also push combat to the night, to take advantage of their superior technology.” Appropriate vehicles, special rifles for snipers, special ammunition, night vision capability and laser aiming devices are among the forms of technology that are needed in addition to improved intelligence-gathering technology.

Several other challenges Nompetsheni outlined include no direct command of attack helicopters, which complicates close air support, the role of proxy countries in the DRC conflict and the limited effect of kinetic operations as the opposition shifts to guerrilla and asymmetric warfare.

He said that South Africa is very committed to ensuring that there is peace, security and stability in the continent. “South Africa will remain committed to ensure regional security due to our commitments to international (UN), regional (AU) and sub-regional (SADC) organizations. The job is not finished but the conditions are good, we can see that peace is very close and South Africa is proud and thankful for that.

“South Africa has the political will, legitimacy and capacity to respond to regional crises; however it needs to seriously revisit the resourcing of critical capacities and ‘force enablers’ to enable rapid and effective although limited expeditionary intervention and peace enforcement in support of international conflict resolution efforts.”