Two parliamentary committees last month went on an oversight visit to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the first time parliamentarians have been able to get hands-on in a mission area (MA) and make recommendations based on first-hand knowledge.
One of the more interesting recommendations that will be made by the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) is that the Military Command of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) “should endeavour to optimally support South African peacekeepers”.
This, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais said, will see Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Secretary for Defence Dr Sam Gulube as well as General Solly Shoke, SANDF Chief, being “engaged” to improve the lot of soldiers and other servicemen and women deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC.
“The point of departure should be what is the best interests of our deployed peacekeepers regarding the kind of support they require given the selfless task they are performing, that they are far away from home for up to 12 months and that it is often not a case of lack of funds, but rather outdated and inappropriate policies,” he said in a report to be tabled at future meetings of both committees.
The delegation that went to DRC also wants the SANDF Chief: Logistics to tell the committees about procurement processes utilised and the possibility of changing them to source items locally rather that bring them in all the way from South Africa. Toilet paper was a specifically mentioned product as was towels.
The availability of purely military materiel and equipment such as spares for the SA Air Force (SAAF) Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters in the DRC was also raised with the parliamentarians. Given the important role these aircraft have in escort duties, delivering manpower and equipment and taking an offensive role as part of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), the lack of spares contributes to a lower availability of aircraft. This, the group was told, sometimes reflects on the overall South African capability which all-round is highly rated.
Marais also wants both committees to consider a recommendation that National Treasury brief them on reimbursement of the SANDF for missions abroad.
“This should include information on funds received from the UN and funds re-distributed to the Department of Defence,” he said.
The visit was aimed at examining issues including reported sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) cases and the achievements and challenges of the deployment. The delegation was informed it was largely the contribution of the SANDF contingent to the FIB that contributed to stabilisation of the eastern DRC in recent years. In particular, their role in the elimination of the M23 rebels as a security threat, with the assistance of Rooivalkcombat support helicopters, wasn widely acclaimed.
“The delegation engaged with SANDF representatives on the impact of a reduction in the level of engagement of South African forces, particularly the potential implications of withdrawal of the Rooivalk helicopters. In the case of a withdrawal, South Africa will review the continued deployment of other military components, such as the infantry battalion, a crucial part of the FIB. The delegation agreed with the SANDF’s assessment the withdrawal of the helicopters is likely to compromise the safety of peacekeepers, mission integrity and sustainability of the FIB and is unlikely to support such withdrawals,” Parliament said.
A highlight of the oversight visit was the inspection of the Eringeti Company Observation Base at Beni in the North Kivu Province, under armed escort. The delegation engaged with peacekeepers from 5 SA Infantry Battalion, while Rooivalk helicopters kept a watchful eye on proceedings on the ground. Members of Parliament were able to experience first-hand the conditions under which South African troops are deployed and made several suggestions to address some of the challenges being experienced by South African soldiers.