South African deaths in DR Congo laid at Ramaphosa’s door

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The first deaths and injuries – all SA National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel – in the Southern African Development Community’s efforts to rein in rebel groups in the volatile eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – point to an under-resourced deployment with at least one critic maintaining the soldiers were “not fit for deployment”.

This comment came from Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema, who made the remark during a media briefing. He called for the peacekeeping mission to be stopped “with immediate effect”.

Although Malema expressed support for South Africa helping President Felix Tshisekedi’s country, he believes South African soldiers were not fit for purpose. “They are not properly trained. They must come back home and we must stop with any military deployment until we are fit and proper,” he said.

“Our army can’t look after cabbages. I can’t hire them at my farm to look after cabbages. We just don’t have the army,” Malema said. “That’s why in the manifesto of the EFF, we say we will finance the army and make sure it is properly trained and the necessary equipment needed for the success of the army is provided. The army has collapsed.”

He likened the M23 rebels attacking the South African base – killing two soldiers and injuring three on 14 February – as “like another man coming to your house” as bases are supposed to be secure.

Department of Defence Head of Communication Siphiwe Dlamini hit back at Malema’s comments, telling Newzroom Africa that the SANDF has lots of experience in the DRC. “With us having been there under the UN offices in the Force Intervention Brigade, which was led by two of our military [officers], we are fit for purpose with the support we need,” Dlamini said.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) forward deployment troops arrived in the DRC in December. Dlamini explained that, “They had to prepare for the contingents that are coming; the actual deployment of the numbers has not yet happened. This was a team that had gone there to scan the environment and settle in with the equipment needed,” Dlamini said.

Defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman told SABC that the rebels were feeling out the SAMIDRC troops, especially the SANDF contingent (SAMIDRC is also comprised of Tanzanian and Malawian troops).

Heitman questioned if the SANDF was going to follow up on the mortar attack aggressively or sit back and not do much about it. “They [M23] don’t know yet just how aggressive the SADC deployment will be, specifically the SANDF contingent, which will be the largest.”

Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais said in a statement “the blood of the fallen soldiers falls squarely on [President Cyril] Ramaphosa’s hands”.

“Two days ago [Tuesday, 13 February], we warned him against deploying more troops to the eastern DRC for the simple reason that the SANDF does not have the capacity to effectively pursue an anti-insurgency campaign against the M23 rebels and neither does it have the prime mission equipment [PME] to support the ground forces.”

Marais points out while South Africa’s Constitution gives Ramaphosa the authority for military deployments – “in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief [of the SANDF]” – the responsibility to stop further loss of life “now rests with Parliament”.

“Parliament should not turn a blind eye when he makes decisions that place our sons and daughters in harm’s way. As the primary oversight body, Parliament should take active steps to review the merits of Ramaphosa’s SANDF deployment to the DRC.

“What Ramaphosa is doing is sending SANDF members to their death and the only outcome from this reckless deployment will be more body bags coming back home. It is clear that the M23 rebels, using their familiarity of the territory, are resorting to tactical ambushes of the SANDF to inflict maximum harm on our troops.

“Even more troubling is that Ramaphosa is sending our troops to an active war zone unprepared and with limited military hardware to navigate the complex terrain. Without proper air cover as well as transport and air elements, SANDF troops will find it difficult to operate effectively in the eastern DRC,” the Marais statement reads.

South Africa’s largest military trade union Sandu (SA National Defence Union) sides with Marais on proper air cover for the South African contingent of SAMIDRC (SADC Mission in the DRC).

“It is evident that additional support and resources are needed to ensure the safety and security of our deployed members. There can be no doubt about the training of our soldiers; it is of a very high rating and troop preparedness and readiness are also very high. Some experts have expressed concern that this deployment needs more support in terms of cover, such as firepower from the air for our deployed members. It is very clear that this would be a great deterrent to future attacks,” Sandu National Secretary Advocate Pikkie Greeff said as part of the union’s response to the mortar attack inside one of the South African Contingent military bases.

Ramaphosa yesterday (Thursday, 15 February) said that “we will also continue to contribute to peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts on our continent. We have just deployed personnel from the SANDF to DRC as part of a SADC mission”.

“We have been part of peacekeeping missions all over the world. Now we support our defence force personnel who brave great dangers to make Africa a more peaceful and stable continent,” according to The Presidency’s prepared address for Ramaphosa.

“That is what we applaud them for and we dip our heads for those who have been injured and those who may well have fallen,” Ramaphosa said.