Another dark footnote has been added to the Battle in Bangui that saw 15 elite South African soldiers killed and a further 27 injured in what has been described as a “vicious firefight” just on five years ago.
The South African soldiers, all members of 1 Parachute Battalion and 5 Special Forces Regiment, were deployed in the Central African Republic’s capital as part of Operation Vimbezela.
In what is now part of South African military folklore and history they put up a hard and determined fight against overwhelming numbers of heavily armed rebels without any air cover or a planned tactical withdrawal using airborne assets. Estimates are the South Africans found themselves facing more than 600 rebels with only platoon level weapons and six-wheeled Gecko vehicles.
After posing questions about what had to be left behind after the soldiers had been successfully evacuated, then Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister, David Maynier, was told in August 2014 the operational report (on the so-called Battle in Bangui) contained classified security sensitive information. Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, added “only training equipment was left behind. The retrieval and transference back to South Africa would not be cost effective”.
Addressing Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans last week, Major General Michael Ramantswana, said the SANDF deployment lost equipment as “it would in any combat situation”.
“The priority for the SANDF was to find ways to rescue our soldiers out of a volatile situation. When all our soldiers were confirmed back in South Africa, the SANDF convened a board of inquiry to determine, among others, losses incurred.
“The equipment losses as a result of the conflict situation in Bangui must be written off,” the SANDF chief: military policy, strategy and planning said adding the total loss was estimated at R4 458 430. He did not specify any types of equipment, ammunition or vehicles left behind when the South African force was moved to Addis Ababa.
Among the still unanswered questions around the South African military involvement in Bangui specifically and the Central African Republic at that time are the issues of an extraction plan covering both personnel and equipment and the means to perform the extraction. Questions about support, airlift, intelligence and the firepower of the force on the ground also remain unanswered.
Military analyst Helmoed Heitman pointed out soon after the Battle in Bangui that South Africa “has now had more than adequate warning its defence capabilities are not up to the responsibilities of a regional power”.
He also said blame should not be apportioned to the soldiers and junior leaders on the ground.
“They are doing their best and their best is often quite outstanding. The fighting around Bangui was a particular demonstration of that. Do not blame the general for deploying small or under-armoured forces: they can only ‘do the best with what they have’ as a former chief of the defence force used to say in another time. And ‘what they have’ in terms of the number of soldiers, the type of equipment and the support capabilities is simply inadequate for the role the South African government wishes to play,” he said.
Probably the most glaring example is this is airlift where the SA Air Force’s 28 Squadron has been flying C-130BZs for more than half a century and replacing them does not appear to have a priority rating.