The South African National Defence Force is using Port St Johns as a jungle warfare training facility in preparation for the deployment of 850 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo in May, when they will join the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) tasked with rooting out rebels.
5 South African Infantry (SAI) Battalion will replace 6 South African Infantry Battalion at the end of May under Operation Mistral, marking the unit’s first time in the DRC. The deployment will be for a year – most previous UN deployments were for six months but it is more economical and effective to deploy forces for a year, as less time is spent acclimatising with one deployment per year than two.
6 SAI deployed in May-June last year, joining a battalion sized element from Tanzania and a battalion sized element from Malawi. Lieutenant Colonel Piet Paxton of the SANDF’s Joint Operations Division said that, to his mind, the Tanzanian and Malawians have demonstrated good performance in the DRC.
5 SAI started with pre-deployment training and is now busy with mission readiness training. Phase 1 of training was conducted at the Boschoek Training Area between 10 and 22 February and covered shooting, helicopter drills, buddy aid, GPS training and offensive and defensive attacks. Phase 2 started on March 3 in Port St Johns and will end on March 21. It is covering patrols, jungle warfare, water orientation, combat shooting, house clearing and offensive and defensive actions.
Port St Johns was chosen as the ideal spot for jungle warfare training as its dense forests are an almost exact replica of what troops will experience in the DRC. The SANDF’s other more established training facilities focus more on grasslands and savannah scenarios.
Brigadier Gen Mannetjies de Goede, from the SA Army Infantry Formation, said that experiences in the Central African Republic and DRC made the SANDF realise that the battlespace has changed and that the SANDF needs to adapt with it. Training was occurring in silos, he said. Before 6 SAI deployed to the DRC it trained in Grahamstown which does not have forests – current training areas do not cover tropical training hence a request was made to train in Port St Johns. Training in jungle terrain is part of the SANDF’s initiative to improve combat readiness as soldiers will go straight into battle when they arrive in the DRC, de Goede pointed out.
Some combat readiness training was demonstrated to the media on Wednesday, including scenarios with 81 mm mortars, 12.7 mm heavy machineguns and 40 mm grenade launchers. Journalists were taken on a tour of the forest when ‘rebels’ attacked, capturing some and holding them hostage before SANDF troops charged through the foliage and rescued them, firing a good many blank rounds along the way.
However, training has not all been simulated. Whilst conducting urban patrol training in Port St Johns, the 5 SAI soldiers responded to a real life event on March 12. Armed men attempted to rob a cash in transit security crew in the town’s business district. The robbers opened fire at the soldiers, who retaliated. During an hour-long standoff, three armed robbers and a security guard were killed and R21 million was recovered. It appears that the security guard was in plain clothes and was carrying a gun when he was shot. No soldiers were injured in the incident but one bystander was injured by a bullet that tore through his shin. Several weapons were confiscated, including an R-4, an AK-47, a .38 Special revolver and 9 mm handgun.
In addition to training, 5 SAI also engaged in an outreach programme that assisted a place of safety that takes local boys off the street. SANDF personnel voluntarily donated R4 963 to the Eluxolweni initiative, which was used to buy clothes, food and blankets.
5 SAI will be deploying as part of the Force Intervention Brigade, made up of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops, and under the direct command of the Monusco Force Commander. The FIB’s offensive mandate is to reduce the threat posed by armed groups to state authority and civilian security in the eastern DRC and to make space for stabilisation activities. Other objectives are to protect civilians, monitor the arms embargo and support the DRC government. They are also charged with protecting United Nations personnel, facilities and equipment.
The troops of 5 SAI are expected to be engaged in combat operations as soon as they arrive in the DRC as there are still numerous rebel groups active following the withdrawal of the M23, such as the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). Paxton said that there was a lot of action in the DRC last year and he didn’t see this changing in 2014.
At the moment there are various South African elements in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A special contingent includes aircraft personnel, military police, logisticians, engineers and others. This group is headquartered in Kinshasa and is under command of the UN mission in the DRC (Monusco). The South African aviation unit, which includes Rooivalk combat helicopters and Oryx transport helicopters, is based in Goma. The aviation unit is an operational tool of the Monusco’s force commander, meaning that the helicopters are under UN, not South African, control.
As the FIB supports the DRC government’s armed forces (FARDC), South Africa has also provided training to the FARDC under operation Thebe.
The DRC rotation, expected to take three weeks to complete, is one of the SANDF’s three external deployments. The other two are Operation Copper ensuring maritime security in the Mozambique Channel and Operation Cordite with Unamid in Sudan.