The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) this afternoon handed over the bodies of the 13 soldiers killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) to their families, during a ceremony at Air Force Base Waterkloof outside Pretoria.
Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula comforted family members who had gathered to officially receive the bodies of their relatives, who died fighting Seleka rebels in the CAR over the weekend. Another 27 soldiers were injured in the fighting. Chief of the SANDF General Solly Shoke and other top military officials were also present during the ceremony.
“These are our heroes…we will honour them as such,” Mapisa-Nqakula said. The minister said that she visited the CAR on January 13 and spent some time with SANDF troops there. “They were very young boys but they were lions and heroes of their country,” she told family members. “What I do know is they were very happy to be deployed to the Central African Republic.”
Mapisa-Nqakula said on the day of the battle, she sat with generals in the operations room and said the soldiers were determined to fight to the last. “Yes, they were in the Central African Republic and they died in the Central African Republic because we had a bilateral agreement with the Central African Republic,” she told family members and journalists. “It was not a waste of time. It was very very important.
“The President takes a decision based on information given by his generals. As a country we all take responsibility for the death of your children…Not that we ever regret sending them to the CAR,” the minister said, describing the deployment as a goodwill mission. She added that the SANDF’s role in the CAR was to train their army not to kill and murder civilians but to be a force for peace and to ensure sovereignty of the state.
“This was not the first deployment; it will not be the last. The important thing is: how do we honour our children.”
Of the 200 SANDF troops involved in the fighting over the weekend, 13 died, 27 were injured and one was missing for four days. He was rescued after hiding in a local church, with the assistance of the local population.
Parabat Lance Corporal Makwenkwe Tats became separated from his fellow soldiers last Friday after they walked into an ambush whilst on a reconnaissance mission, reports Beeld. After hiding from the rebels for four days, Tats managed to contact his unit on Tuesday, who went to collect him.
There has been criticism of the SANDF’s deployment to the CAR and the reasons for it, with opposition parties questioning South Africa’s political ambitions and military readiness.
“It is unacceptable that South Africans have died in an armed conflict in which there is so little public knowledge of precisely what it is that the SANDF is doing in the CAR in the first place,” the Ceasefire Campaign said yesterday. More light will be shed on the deployment when it is discussed by the Joint Standing Committee on Defence next week.
“The Ceasefire Campaign reiterates its unwavering position that military interventions are not the solution to the deep rooted forms of social conflict on our continent…The White Paper on Peace Missions accepted in October 1994…makes it clear that South Africa’s preferred options are preventive diplomacy, peace-making, and peace building.
“In a context of deeply polarised armed conflict, such as the Central African Republic, the deployment of troops inevitably allies South Africa with one side, and against another. The loss of lives in the CAR is explicitly linked to this alignment, which goes against the grain of South Africa’s intended international diplomatic and foreign policy agenda.”
“The SANDF soldiers evidently equipped themselves well under fire, in circumstances where they were vastly outnumbered by rebel forces, but in the end they appear to have been left dangling, without the necessary military support,” said David Maynier, the opposition Democratic Alliance party’s Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.
“We need to get to the bottom of why the SANDF was deployed in the CAR effectively to support President Francois Bozize. And we need to get to the bottom of how 13 of our soldiers died in the CAR.”