The rotation of South African soldiers deployed to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in full swing, with hundreds of soldiers welcomed back home after a year away.
During the course of this week, several hundred South African Army soldiers from 7 South African Infantry (SAI) Battalion returned home, and several hundred from 2 SAI have flown to the DRC aboard Ethiopian Airlines aircraft chartered by the United Nations. A South African Air Force C-130 Hercules is being used to ferry troops from the DRC to Uganda, where they embark aboard the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft.
The first flight departed on Tuesday and the last will depart on 8 July, wrapping up the return of 850 soldiers and the deployment of 800 (the fresh battalion is slightly smaller at the UN’s request). The SA National Defence Force also has pilots, medics and other specialists deployed but they are rotated on different schedules.
Many of the soldiers returning home were given goodwill parcels. These are traditionally handed out to deployed soldiers around Christmas, but due to elections in the DRC late last year, limited movement around the DRC due to the outbreak of Ebola and logistics challenges, not all parcels were delivered.
In a ceremony at the De Brug mobilisation centre outside Bloemfontein today, parcels were handed over by members of the Good Will Parcel project. Since inception 18 years ago, R70 million has been raised whilst this year R3.3 million has been raised.
General Officer Commanding Joint Operational Headquarters, Major General Thabiso Mokhosi, said it is important to contribute to peacekeeping in Africa as peace in Africa means that there is peace and prosperity in South Africa.
He said the year-long deployment by 7 SAI was notable in that in spite of soldiers seeing combat, there were no casualties, and for the first time the South African battalion was commanded by a woman, Lieutenant Colonel Tiisetso Sekgobela. In addition, Lieutenant Dimakatso Raisibe Maila served as the only female platoon commander with the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
Sekgobela said that her soldiers look at her not as a woman but as a commander, but she has encountered some resistance from soldiers from other countries.
Sekgobela said if peacekeepers were not deployed to the DRC, the situation there would be far worse. She said that at the moment, the situation is relatively quiet but varies a lot – for instance seven Malawian peacekeepers were killed in fighting in November last year.
The South African soldiers in the DRC carry out a wide range of duties, including base protection, offensive patrols, high visibility deterrence patrols, escorting humanitarian missions, combat search and rescue and escort – Sekgobela said visitors often ask to be escorted by South African soldiers. South African troops are making efforts to win the hearts and minds of the local population, and regularly provide humanitarian assistance, which has included donating solar panels. Working with the local population means the soldiers often receive advance warning of attacks, she said.
Apart from rebels, soldiers also have to battle the environment (they go for months of jungle warfare training before deployment) and disease – Sekgobela has already contracted malaria once before. She commended the new equipment the soldiers have received (including boots), which stands up better to the humid environment.
The soldiers serving with the UN Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC are unique in that they are serving under a more robust peace enforcement mandate, rather than a softer peacekeeping mandate. The Brigade comprises South African, Tanzanian and Malawian battalions, and is commanded by South African Brigdier General Patrick Dube.
Around half the 4 000 deployed SANDF personnel are in the DRC, with the rest on internal deployments.