Two SANDF soldiers killed while deployed with SAMIDRC mission

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The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has suffered its first casualties as part of the Southern African Development Community Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC), with two soldiers killed and three injured in a mortar attack.

The SANDF today confirmed that on 14 February at about 13h30, a mortar bomb landed inside one of the South African Contingent military bases.

As a result of this indirect fire, the SANDF suffered two fatalities and three members sustained injuries. The injured were taken to the nearest Hospital in Goma for medical attention, Department of Defence Head of Communication Siphiwe Dlamini said in a statement.

He added that details of the incident are still sketchy at the moment, and further investigations will be conducted to “determine the basis of the incident.”

The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thandi Modise, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thabang Makwetla, the Acting Secretary for Defence, Thobekile Gamede and the Chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, expressed their condolences to the families of the deceased soldiers and wished the injured members a speedy recovery.

The South African contingent is part of the SAMIDRC that is deployed to support and assist the government of the DRC in its effort to bring peace, security and stability in that region. President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered 2 900 members of the SANDF to join SAMIDRC from 15 December 2023 to 15 December 2024, at a cost of R2 billion.

Other constituents of SAMIDRC include forces from Malawi, Tanzania, and the Congolese Army (Forces Armees de la Republic Democratique du Congo/FARDC).

The deployment is off to a shaky start as emboldened M23 rebels threaten the capital of North Kivu, Goma, amid the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers serving under the MONUSCO mission.

Aviation expert Dean Wingrin warned that the SANDF deployment with SAMIDRC will have “tragic consequences” as there are no Rooivalk attack helicopters to provide top cover and few Oryx transport helicopters available. “You cannot rely on air support of other countries, particularly when urgent/under fire,” he said.

Speaking to Newzroom Afrika, Wingrin elaborated by saying, “South Africa has a very limited defence budget. Over the last ten years…it’s been getting smaller and smaller in real terms and yet the Defence Force is being asked to do more and more and the mandate constantly increases. There’s only so much you can do with the given budget.”

He said the SANDF only has about 14 000 troops which it can actually deploy at any given time due to the need to rotate and train forces, with around 1 200 serving with MONUSCO, 1 500 serving with the SADC Mission in Mozambique, and 2 700 on border safeguarding Operation Corona. “And if that was not enough, the President has now asked the Army to deploy 900 soldiers to protect Eskom power stations and another 3 300 soldiers to combat the illegal miners.”

“This is certainly not sustainable,” Wingrin cautioned, especially as there is a lack of support for these troops. “The Air Force particularly has been decimated by underfunding in the last few years and the absolutely critical airlift and fire support they need in Mozambique, in the DRC, is just not available, and where it is available, it’s not available in sufficient quantities – and as a result South African troops have died.”

“The Air Force and Defence Force are severely constrained in the capacity they have,” he said. “The three Rooivalks deployed in the DRC have not flown for a year, mainly due to funding issues between the Air Force and Denel, which is the original equipment manufacturer. The Air Force has very few Oryx helicopters available, just a couple in South Africa. Of the five in the DRC, only two are airworthy…without air cover, South African troops in the DRC are severely at risk.”

Wingrin said that without attack helicopters, SANDF and SADC soldiers cannot be protected, and should troops be injured, the SAAF will have difficulty flying them out due to the shortage of Oryx helicopters.

Compounding these problems in the DRC is the fact that rebel groups have been getting increasingly sophisticated weapons, with the United Nations revealing that a mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) system launched a missile at one of its Falco surveillance aircraft. It is believed that the SAM system was supplied and possibly operated by Rwanda, which is supporting the M23. Guided mortar rounds and other sophisticated weapons have also been making their way into the hands of the DRC’s 100+ rebel groups.

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier cautioned that SAMIDRC is under-sized and under-resourced for the requirement, and “there will be more casualties.”

Earlier this month, M23 rebels fired at a South African Air Force (SAAF) Oryx helicopter, which was hit at least 43 times by suspected AK-47 and PK machine gun fire during a MONUSCO medical evacuation mission. One shot injured the hand of Oryx commander, Major Jannie Augustyn, and another peppered his leg with shrapnel. A medical orderly in the back, who was taking care of a patient whom the crew had just evacuated, was hit by a bullet that came through the floor and hit him under his body armour.