While the heroism of the South African National Defence Force troops that fought in the Central African Republic (CAR) cannot be denied, a number of lessons can be learnt from what some commentators have called ‘South Africa’s military misadventure’.
In his analysis titled “The Battle in Bangui: the Untold Story,” defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman gives an insight into just how bravely the outnumbered contingent of South African soldiers performed in the hours long, high intensity firefight they found themselves in between March 22 and 24.
However, he also points out a number of hard lessons learnt during the events that saw the overthrow of CAR President Francois Bozize by the Seleka rebel alliance. Some of these include the poor intelligence picture, a force that was far too light for a sustained combat role and the lack of air support and airlift.
One of the most salient points Heitman makes is that South Africa has now had “more than adequate warning its defence capabilities are not up to the responsibilities of a regional power” and supports this assertion with the deadly October 2012 ambush in Darfur and the November 2012 rebel occupation of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Do not blame the soldiers and junior leaders: they are doing their best and their best is often quite outstanding. The fighting around Bangui was a particular demonstration of that. Do not blame the generals for deploying small or under-armed forces: they can only ‘do the best with what they have’ as a former chief of the Defence Force used to say in another time. And ‘what they have’ in terms of the number of soldiers, the type of equipment and the support capabilities is simply inadequate for the role that South Africa’s government wishes to play.
“If there is blame it must go to the politicians who starve the Defence Force financially and then expect it to work miracles.
“Soldiers of all countries do that all the time, but sooner or later they are expected to do the impossible, and that will take a little longer or prove rather more costly than expected. South Africa must decide whether it is going to undertake regional missions or not. If we are going to do that, we must provide our troops with the equipment needed for such operations, which must as a matter of urgency include transport aircraft to fly in light armoured vehicles and Rooivalk and Oryx helicopters, and tanker aircraft to enable the Gripen and Hawk to be deployed quickly if necessary.”
Officially, the SANDF contingent was deployed to the CAR in January based on a February 2007 defence co-operation agreement which provided for “co-operation on peace and stability and the training and capacity building of military personnel through the exchange of trainees, instructors and observers”. At the same time, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council decided that African states should assist the CAR in “the consolidation of peace and security”.
“All governments employ their armed forces to further and protect their country’s political and economic interests. That has been so since the days of kings and has not somehow magically changed with the spread of democratic governments,” Heitman writes. He cites the sale of military hardware at giveaway prices (such as practised by China) and military assistance agreements (such as that between South Africa and the CAR) as examples of furthering political and economic interests.
“The fine line to be walked here is to be sure there is a clear separation of national interests from those of individuals or ruling parties…It is probably unfair, however, to assume that the mere fact that someone benefitted from the deployment of troops…was the sole reason for that deployment. This aspect of the agreement with the CAR has very clearly not been properly handled. Against the background of the many allegations against the ruling party, additional care should have been taken to ensure transparency and to explain the rationale for the deployment,” Heitman writes.
Heitman concludes by warning those in charge of the national purse strings: “There is no such thing as military operations on the cheap: what is saved in cash will be paid for in blood”.
The arrival at Air Force Base Waterkloof of 13 bodybags after the Battle in Bangui should serve as a reminder of the paid in blood part of the equation for future military deployments. That sombre event is certainly still in the minds of wider South Africa and questions have and will be asked about peacekeeping, peace support or other continental military missions.