Roos Katrina Davids made her way slowly up the steps to the podium. Her arm was firmly grasped by the SAMHS captain accompanying her.
She walked to the wall, placed the wreath, looked down and then gazed up before turning to walk back the way she had come.
The wreath, almost half the size of the frail pensioner from Pretoria West, had been laid by her to represent the spouses, parents and families of the 55 South African soldiers who have perished in peacekeeping operations since 2003. Mrs Davids lost her son, Staff Sergeant Samson Davids in the DRC.
“He died on September 30, 2008, it feels like yesterday,” she said.
On Tuesday 29 May, the chief of the South African National Defence Force General Solly Shoke unveiled the memorial wall at the De Brug Mobilisation Centre, commemorating the International Day of UN Peacekeepers.
On it are the names of the 55 soldiers who have died on active duty in blue berets, as well South African military personnel who have perished in other missions, including the Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic in 2013.
The SANDF had gathered relatives of all those who had died to attend the service and afterwards place a single rose in memory of each soldier.
The wall stands at the Mobilisation Centre in De Brug, outside Bloemfontein, where all soldiers are sent for mission readiness training, normally of a month in duration, before being shipped out directly on deployment from Bloemspruit Air Force Base.
Shoke told the assembled guests, which included the SANDF’s command council, that he was proud to pay tribute to the South African peacekeepers by unveiling the wall.
“Peace is not something that comes easy, we have to work for it. We believe in peace,” he said explaining that instability in the continent had immediate and measurable ramifications for South Africa.
“Events that take place around us do affect us politically, economically and otherwise, we end up with a number of political and economic refugees in this country, we find ourselves saturated (stressing) the little resources that we have.”
Noting that peacekeeping was intrinsically dangerous, he said members of the SANDF had to lead by example and ensure their conduct was exemplary. The SANDF was rocked in March by claims that up to nine cases of sexual misconduct by South African peacekeepers are currently being investigated by the UN.
Turning his attention closer to home, Shoke warned of the rising crime wave in the country.
“We have seen events that are disturbing; violent crimes and demonstrations with the possibility to destabilise the country. As South Africans we must pause and take a step backwards. What is it that we have done wrong? We should not allow crime to take centre stage.”
The SANDF, he said, would always be the country’s last line of defence.
To the families, he said: “For their deeds, they will always be remembered for they served the nation with pride and dignity.”
The danger the troops face is something is close to the head of the SANDF’s chief of joint operations, Lieutenant General Barney Hlatshwayo.
He said the SANDF had spoken out during the joint assessment mission in February this year to establish exactly what the UN wanted to achieve in 2018.
“There two key issues; safeguarding civilians and mounting offensive military action.”
The problem was that the two often became conflated with fatal consequences for the Tanzanian contingent last year, leaving 15 dead and 53 wounded.
“This year’s a big year with the election in the DRC. We argued strongly that company operation bases should not be the responsibility of the Force Intervention Brigade, but rather that of the framework forces like Monusco.
“We need to free the SANDF to be able to engage in offensive action.”
The SANDF would man temporary bases to protect the population but there needed to be a time frame on what temporary was.
“We need clarity on what temporary operating bases are. In our mind, temporary means 14 days, but often temporary bases are there for years, civilians flock to them thinking they are a safe haven. Informal settlements spring up around the base and insurgents move among the people, making it very difficult to defend the base. This is what happened to the Tanzanians.”
Speaking afterwards, the director of the UN Information Centre in Pretoria, Masimba Tafirenyika, said he had attended 15 annual International Day of the Peacekeeper commemorations, but that this one had been the most moving.
“Today, marks the 70th anniversary of the UN’s peacekeeping missions involving soldiers, police and civilian peacekeepers. I’m a former civilian peacekeeper having served in Liberia and in Sierra Leone immediately after the bloody civil war there. I’m always moved by the sight of troops working selflessly for peace.”
South Africa, he said, was the 11th largest contributor of troops in Africa and the 17th largest in the world, with 1 231 troops between the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan.
More than 1 million men and women had served as UN peacekeepers, he said and “3 700 blue helmets have paid the ultimate price.”
The pain lives on at De Brug. After Shoke’s speech, he returned the national ceremonial guard’s salute as the bugler played the last post and then segued into reveille. A series of wails rent the silence, followed by inconsolable weeping from other relatives. One women was led away, half carried, by members of the chaplain’s service, another collapsed in the tent. Others sobbed where they sat.
Afterwards Mrs Davids, accompanied by her daughter Roos Maya, S Sgt Davids’s sister, and Samlewin Davids, his son, went back to look at the wall and the names on the marble insets.
“He was such a big lad,” said Mrs Davids.
“It’s such an honour to be here among so many other people, and to see just how broken we all are – and to draw strength from that.