‘Deeply irresponsible’ to send overstretched SANDF into SADC mission in the DRC

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The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is so underfunded and overstretched that it is deeply irresponsible to be sending soldiers into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to serve with the new Southern African Development Community (SADC) force, as it is far too small to bring peace and stability to the region.

This is according to seasoned defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman, who was responding to Wednesday’s rebel M23 mortar attack on a SADC Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) base that left two South African soldiers dead and three injured.

In an interview with the SABC, he said the SANDF “unfortunately has essentially been run into the ground due to underfunding and overstretch. Not due to the fault of the people – there’s nothing wrong with our soldiers. They have done well in every operation. But without the equipment, without the money to operate the equipment and become really proficient with it, you can’t do the job.”

“The Army has a total strength of thirty-something thousand,” Heitman explained, with about half of them infantry. “There will be now 2 900, mainly Army, in the Congo [with SAMIDRC]. I don’t know if we can really afford to withdraw from Mozambique – that’s another 1 500 [deployed soldiers]. There’s another 2 700 involved in border patrol; 3 300 tracing zama zamas, and almost 900 deployed to protect power stations. The Army’s got nothing much left to give…it is now fully stretched, in fact overstretched.

“The Air Force can’t support it because it hasn’t been give the money to maintain its aircraft. So, what we’re doing is we’re trying to play a regional role with a defence force we’re only funding up to a border guard level. That is deeply irresponsible of government,” Heitman said.

With regard to the SAMIDRC deployment, he believes it is “very much a decision time for the SADC, and South Africa: either do it properly or don’t do it at all.” According to Heitman, SAMIDRC will have about 5 000 troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, but if the roughly 15 000 United Nations troops under MONUSCO could not bring peace to the DRC, it’s unlikely the smaller SADC mission will be able to.

“The primary problem is the SADC mission is far too small to do the job. They cannot win this battle. To stabilise the Eastern DRC, you need 20 000 troops with lots of air support and they need to stay there for 20 years. The UN was there for 20 years with a weak force and achieved nothing.”

Earlier this week, a UN unmanned aerial vehicle was targeted by a surface-to-air missile for the first time, indicating Rwandan forces are providing sophisticated equipment to M23 rebels. Heitman cautioned that the M23 are formidable rebels as they know the terrain backwards, are entrenched with the local population and are taking advantage of MONUSCO’s withdrawal this year.

He said the DRC government’s request for MONUSCO to withdraw is “baffling” unless they want instability because people are making lots of money in the Eastern DRC through illegal mining, smuggling etc.

Although the local population has protested MONUSCO’s lack of success in bringing peace and stability, Heitman believes MONUSCO shouldn’t withdraw and that the SADC should put in a much stronger force. “Angola, for example, has the largest military in the SADC and they don’t seem to be coming to the party at all.”

With regard to inadequate forces, Heitman pointed to the SADC Mission in Mozambique, to combat ASWJ terrorists in Cabo Delgado province. “The force that went in was too small, [with] no air support, has basically failed, and now they want to withdraw.”