The Battle for Bangui, which led to rebels overthrowing the Central African Republic (CAR) government, has drawn widespread criticism, with calls ranging from a parliamentary inquiry to a full Presidential explanation why South African soldiers were deployed to the CAR.
Some observers are even calling the fire fight, which saw at least 13 South African soldiers killed, a disaster for foreign policy.
On the other side of the coin the ruling African National Congress (ANC) called the dead “true sons of the continent willing to give up their lives to ensure peace”.
Paul Simon Handy, head of conflict prevention at the Institute for Security Studies, is reported as saying the CAR deployment was a disaster and South African was now “paying a high price for a poorly thought out plan”.
This follows allegations that Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in January recommended withdrawal of SANDF troops in the CAR, and warnings by senior officers that the CAR deployment was “suicidal”.
Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow defence and military veterans minister David Maynier has called for a multi-party ad-hoc committee to conduct “a comprehensive inquiry into the SANDF military assistance operation in the CAR”.
“The highly questionable deployment, authorised by President Zuma in January, has been a disaster from the beginning. The official reason, essentially to assist with capacity building of the CAR defence force, was never plausible,” he said, adding there were five major issues to be probed.
These are: whether the President authorised the deployment against the advice of the Minister Mapisa-Nqakula and the Military Command who reportedly recommended the 28 soldiers originally deployed in the CAR should be withdrawn.
Whether the President effectively misled Parliament when he informed members of the Joint Standing Committee on Defence the SANDF was being deployed in the CAR to assist with “capacity building of the CAR defence force” and to assist with the “implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration process”.
Why the SANDF was deployed, in terms of a Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and the CAR, rather than a mandate from the UN or the AU.
Why the defence force was deployed, in the middle of what amounted to a civil war, with so little military support. There were no helicopter gunships to provide air support to SANDF soldiers or transport aircraft to evacuate SANDF soldiers from the CAR. Another issue to be probed is the exact circumstances under which 13 members of the SANDF were killed.
Freedom Front Plus (FF+) party defence spokesman Pieter Groenewald said events in the CAR were another indicator of the increasing ineffectiveness of the SANDF caused primarily by insufficient funding.
“The situation our soldiers found themselves in in the CAR is a direct result of shortfalls in the logistic and air support areas. We believe all South African soldiers should immediately be withdrawn from the area to prevent any further loss of life,” he said, adding it appeared President Zuma had not taken these factors into account when authorising the CAR deployment.
“Military experts have long been warning the SANDF cannot undertake full and proper peacekeeping and peace support missions without the necessary support.
“The events in CAR should serve as a wake-up call that it’s high time the defence budget was given serious attention. Only then will our soldiers be properly trained for the tasks set and have the right equipment for the job,” he said.
Harsher criticism came from the country’s largest military trade union with SANDU (SA National Defence Union) national secretary Pikkie Greeff saying the SANDF will “forever be tainted for dithering in the face of a full-scale crisis”.
He said the CAR situation had “backfired politically” on Zuma.
“He is now obliged to inform Parliament and the nation on the status of the situation. This is not a political secret to keep under the veil of national security. South Africans have the right to know the extent of our troops’ exposure and what steps are being taken to fix what appears to be more and more the result of questionable judgement,” Greeff said.
SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke dismissed SANDU’s comments as those representing “only a small minority of the SANDF” during his official briefing on the CAR situation on Monday.
Institute for Security Studies (ISS) specialist Paul-Simon Handy said South Africa had made a series of mistakes in the CAR.
“Sending troops without sufficient and serious logistical support might have been, in hindsight, a mistake. South Africa also got involved in a region out of Southern African Development Community without the blessing of the regional economic community (Economic Community of Central African States), which it failed to involve in a peace process to resolve the crisis. South Africa should have at least looked for the blessing of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union,” he said.