SA Dept of Defence responds to DR Congo deployment criticism

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South African Department of Defence Head of Communication (HoC) Siphiwe Dlamini notes in an opinion piece that the deployment of a SA National Defence Force (SANDF) contingent to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the SADC Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) has provided “plenty of grist” to the opinion mill.

This is especially after the subsequent tragic deaths of Captain Simon Bobe and Lance Corporal Irven Semono as result of enemy action.

In the piece published by Johannesburg daily The Citizen, Dlamini writes that these events should provide debate as “we are a democracy, and this is a people’s defence force and its role, and its use, should be debated.”

The 700 plus word piece has it “there are major and justifiable concerns about budget implications” including the lack of sufficient air cover and that “the deployment might be fatally overstretching the SANDF’s capacity”.

“None of these are new concerns in and of themselves; successive chiefs of the SANDF have raised these precise issues in the past, along with their respective chiefs of service.

“These concerns ignore the reality that this deployment was not done in haste, nor without the requisite planning.

“There have been numerous discussions at the highest echelons of government about the need to support the SANDF in all its needs, including funding.

“There is a real commitment to do this. We should also not forget three critical points in the current discourse, well intentioned or otherwise, about the SANDF.

“The first is that the mission in the DRC is not solely a South African tasking but a request from the greater Southern African Development Community to ensure the stability of the region as the United Nations began its well-publicized drawdown of Monusco, its 20 year-long mission to stabilize the DRC, in December last year.

“Secondly, there are other countries who will be contributing too to this mission, some of whom will be able to directly address the issue of air cover through the capabilities of their own air forces.

“Thirdly, the South African National Defence Force has been part of Monusco since its inception, commanding the mission and regularly providing commanders for the smaller three battalion strong multinational Force Intervention Brigade, the only UN force mandated to use force offensively.

“The biggest issue of all though is peacekeeping. SA is a continental leader and has never shied away from the often onerous responsibility to lead these processes, participating from the front, if necessary, putting its money and its troops where its mouth is.

“This is not an easy decision and it is not without risks, all of which weigh very heavily upon our Commander-in-Chief, President Cyril Ramaphosa; the political head; Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise; and chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, before deploying these national assets.

“These soldiers are not conscripts, they are volunteers, but all of us know the risks that they will face in the field – and the sacrifices they may well be asked to make – to keep this peace.

“It is easy for the keyboard warriors to argue that our horizons should be limited to our land, sea and air borders, but the reality is that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Kivu or Goma could very well create an unstoppable tsunami in Johannesburg or Cape Town.

“It’s too late to deal with an insurgency not just on your doorstep but within your borders. This is part of the rationale for the SANDF’s participation in the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) to keep the insurgency in Cabo Delgado at bay.

“That is the apex threat – of war and terror in our cities and countryside, but there are other threats, too, of even more refugees seeking a better life in SA, potential economic and criminal risks which put further strain on our law enforcement agencies, the home affairs department, the department of social security and, indeed, our fiscus.

“It is said that a stitch in time saves nine. It doesn’t help to just create non-porous borders, where the SANDF is already performing a yeoman and unheralded service as part of the ongoing Operation Corona.

“We have to try to resolve issues and create the conditions that are crucial to allowing a sustainable and enduring state of peace on the continent that could otherwise threaten the way of life we aspire to, even though they are not our direct neighbours.

“It is this philosophy that has guided the SANDF ever since the days of our first Commander-in-Chief Nelson Mandela, when he worked tirelessly to bring peace to the Great Lakes Region.”

Dlamini wrote that South Africa provided the first force commander, Lieutenant General Derrick Mgwebi, to the special United Nations peacekeeping force that was created for Burundi. Mgwebi would go on to command Monusco. “But it is not only the UN operations to which we have contributed troops, materiel, and combat. We have also been very involved with African Union and regional peacekeeping initiatives, from the Comoros to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Lesotho, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Uganda over above Burundi and the DRC.

“This latest deployment is in the same vein; indeed, it is in keeping with the broader aim of South Africa’s foreign policy position of ‘contributing to the creation of a better Africa and the World’. It is also aligned to the African Union’s desire to create an African capacity to bring about African solutions to African problems rather than having to rely upon the largesse of international agencies, which invariably have other issues to contend with than the problems that are our lived reality. The president, our commander-in-chief, has authorized the deployment of these members of the SANDF from December 15 last year to December 15 this year. It is a tough assignment, it is one that is perilous and difficult, but it is a vital mission.

“The question we should be asking is not why our soldiers are serving in these far-flung fields, but how best we can support them; how best they can be equipped and trained so that they all come back at their end of service, proud and whole, the mission accomplished. The answer to that question lies in the budgetary allocation process.

“South Africa continues to ask more and more of its men and women in uniform. It is only right that the nation meets that demand with a willingness to fulfil its soldiers’ needs by contributing to the privilege of having the defence force it expects,” Dlamini concluded.

Time to stop living on hopes and promises

Responding to Dlamini’s editorial, African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier said the piece was “interesting,” but “I take issue with certain aspects. I also don’t think anyone is claiming no planning was done, but that the planning is inadequate for the level of risk.”

With regard to the need for more SANDF fund, Olivier said we have been hearing this for years. The much-heralded 2015 Defence Review even had a staged plan for budget increases that was accepted by Cabinet and Parliament, but the actual result was a reduction in defence spending. Similarly, last month’s budget shows no progress.

“At some point it’s time to stop living on hopes and promises and ask for either a concrete plan and commitment for more defence spending. Or, failing that, a formal acknowledgement that it’s not going to happen in the near future, and a plan to downsize the SANDF and its mandate.

As for Dlamini’s assertion that other SAMIDRC contributors would be able to provide much-needed air support, “It would be nice if this could be confirmed, but none of the information that has emerged so far about SAMIDRC, including the order of battle, shows any air support contributed by Tanzania or Malawi, or any other SADC member.”

While Olivier agrees that the situation in the DRC needs to be brought under control for the benefit of South Africa and the continent, “it’s not a reason to deploy a force without the necessary support, equipment, and clear-enough mission objectives to ensure a reasonable chance of success and a manageable risk level. The idea is not to avoid risk altogether, but to find the right balance.

“Because SA has allowed so many SANDF capabilities to deteriorate through persistent underfunding and overcommitment, the country has to accept no longer having the same freedom of action. The SANDF is smaller and less capable than it was 10 years ago. That’s not because the sailors, soldiers, aircrew, etc. are worse, but because that’s what inevitably happens when you cut defence budgets and shrink personnel numbers. Many other countries have gone through the same.

“As a country, South Africa has decided that defence is not something it wants to dedicate more than 0.7% of its GDP to. That’s okay, it’s a choice like any other, and perhaps the money was better spent elsewhere. But it has consequences and carries real risks, which can’t be ignored,” Olivier concluded.