The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was ready to conduct three non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) in the first three months of this year. Acting Chief of the SANDF Lieutenant General Themba Matanzima says NEOs were planned and prepared for south Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. In the end, only the Libyan NEO was actioned.
The south Sudan NEO related to the evacuation of South African nationals from the region if violence preceded or followed the January vote for or against secession. The vast majority of voters chose secession and the poll took place without violence. Matanzima said an evacuation was planned and forces pre-positioned to conduct the operation, “we ensured we were close-by”, but in the end there was no requirement for the task.
The same month the SAS Drakensberg was detached from its task as a communication and guard vessel for the 2011 Cape to Rio Yacht race, and according to a Department of International Relations and Cooperation statement in February pre-positioned in the Gulf of Guinea to come to the “possible assistance to SA diplomats, designated personnel and other South African citizens in Ivory Coast.”
Matanzima said after a while, the NEO task force, likely Special Forces, was moved ashore in Ghana, “a friendly country”, where they remained on standby if required. Eventually negotiations with forces in the Cote d’Ivoire, where fighting was ever-escalating, allowed the evacuation of embassy staff to Ghana. The Independent Group newspapers note the evacuation took place on April 8 – Friday before last – and saw staff and their families evacuated from the embassy to Abidjan airport and from there to Accra in neighbouring Ghana on Saturday. “They were to fly home in the South African Air Force C130 Hercules transport aircraft which had been been waiting for them at Accra airport since last Sunday and which collected them in Abidjan on Saturday and flew them to Accra,” the group’s newspapers reported last week Monday.
Embassy staff, including Ambassador Zodwa Lallie, had been unable to get from the embassy to Abidjan airport until Friday because of the increasing volume of fighting in the streets of the city between forces loyal to incumbent and spoiler president Laurent Gbagbo and the winner of last year’s election, Alassane Ouattara. At the time Ouattara’s men were advancing on Gbagbo’s residence. Ironically, Gbagbo surrendered to Ouattara on Monday. The Independent Group notes it was not clear “how the staff got from the embassy to the airport. In the end the drive to the airport had gone off without incident.”
The third NEO involved the rescue of some 40 South Africans and other nationals from Tripoli, Libya, in late February. DIRCO deputy director general for public affairs Clayson Monyela at the time said the thirty South Africans – including Ambassador Mohammed Dangor and his entire staff – were evacuated on a chartered Boeing 767. This had left South Africa on February 25 for Malta and landed in Tripoli on Sunday, February 27. The plane took off for South Africa around 3pm. “They are all quite happy to be here and many of them are reuniting with their families,” said Monyela on February 28 after the aircraft landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria.
DIRCO decided on February 27 to evacuate the entire South African embassy in Libya, after having announced earlier that “a core group of dedicated officials under the leadership of … Dangor … shall remain in place.” Monyela says over that weekend the department became “gravely concerned about their circumstances and there was a security concern. Our decision was to get them out as their safety was our main priority.”
Close to 20 other countries were at the time also evacuating their citizens by land, sea and air, with or without Tripoli’s consent. Britain on February 27 used three military transport planes to evacuate 150 civilians from sites in the Libyan desert. Defence minister Liam Fox said they included people from Britain and other countries who had been stranded in Libya following the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year-old rule on February 15. The day before, two British military transport planes flew into Libya without Libyan permission and picked up a similar number of foreign oil workers from the eastern desert in an operation said to have involved special forces. One of the RAF Hercules aircraft appeared to have suffered minor damage from small arms fire, Fox added. The rescues took place at the same time as a carbon-copy secret mission by the German Luftwaffe to evacuate 132 people from the desert using two German military aircraft.
NEO missions are not explicitly listed in South Africa’s 1998 Defence Review (DR) as a task the SANDF had to prepare for. The closest is its responsibility to protect its embassies, ships and aircraft abroad. “The threat against these assets is mainly one of piracy and international terrorism. Protection by host nations may not always be forthcoming or effective,” the DR notes. “Although the impact of such contingencies is relatively low, the probability of their occurrence is relatively high. The capability to protect and release captured embassies, ships and aircraft should therefore be provided for in the core force. This capability must be at immediate readiness since the contingency may arise with little or no warning.”