The motives behind the involvement of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the Central African Republic (CAR) remains contested. Thirteen South African soldiers lost their lives in the CAR following confrontations with elements of the Seleka rebel group, who marched on Bangui, the capital of the CAR, on 23 March 2013 to oust the former president, Francois Bozize.
The rebels accused Bozize, who also seized power through a coup d’état in 2003, of breaching a peace accord that was signed in Libreville in January 2013, following an earlier offensive in December 2012. French troops and soldiers of the regional Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC) were also present in the Bangui during the rebel offensive that led to the ousting of Bozize and the deaths of the South African soldiers. However, only SANDF forces were engaged by the Seleka rebels, prompting accusations and speculations that South African soldiers had been deployed in the CAR to protect Bozize and the business interests of the ruling ANC.
The SANDF has maintained a military base in Bangui since 2007, as part of a deployment under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the governments of South Africa and the CAR. On 23 March 2013, the South African soldiers stationed in Bangui came under fire from the Seleka rebels as the latter advanced towards the presidential palace. The nine-hour battle, which failed to halt the overthrow of Bozize and his subsequent exile to neighbouring Cameroon, resulted in the death of 13 South African soldiers, while 27 others were wounded. One of the wounded soldiers later died in a military hospital in Pretoria, bring the total number of casualties on the South African side to 14 soldiers.
In the wake of the CAR debacle, President Jacob Zuma’s government defended its position that the deployment of SANDF forces was strictly in line with the bilateral accord signed in 2007 and renewed in 2012, in terms of which South Africa was to assist in capacitating the CAR military and to assist in planning the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration (DDR) of rebel groups. However, opposition political parties, political commentators, as well as the South African media have been united in questioning the government’s motive for deploying troops in the CAR, with some alleging that the soldiers had been in the CAR to protect the business interests of ANC politicians and other business individuals. The Mail & Guardian, for example, published an expose claiming that “the lure of arms deals and diamonds – and possibly other mineral resources – sucked the ANC into the Central African Republic”.
Indeed, allegations that the deployment in the CAR was informed by the promotion of self-interests cannot be easily dismissed, neither could the strategic blunders and lack of foresight on the part of the government be excused. That notwithstanding, it cannot be disputed that at face value, the deployment of SANDF troops resonates with South Africa’s national interests and the strategic orientation of its foreign policy, especially as it relates to the African continent.
Firstly, it could be argued that the deployment in the CAR was informed by a central principle in South Africa’s foreign policy, which contends that South Africa’s peace and prosperity cannot be guaranteed in the midst of a turbulent continent. In this context, South Africa’s policy towards the continent has since 1994 prioritised the active promotion of democracy, peace, stability, and development in Africa, within the broad framework of promoting the African Agenda. It is worth noting that playing a meaningful role in post conflict reconstruction and development (PCRD) in Africa, through either bilateral or multilateral channels, is central to South Africa’s peace diplomacy on the continent. This could explain why, in addition to making reference to the MoU signed between South Africa and the CAR, government officials have justified SANDF deployment in the CAR as a legitimate response to the request that had been made by the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) for member states to provide whate
ver support they can for socio-economic recovery and the consolidation of peace and stability in the CAR.
Secondly, it must be kept in mind that CAR shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and that South African troops are currently deployed in the DRC as part of the UN stabilisation mission in the country. Moreover, South Africa has since 2004 invested extensively in a number of post-conflict reconstruction and development initiatives in the DRC, as part of its broader strategy to contribute to the stabilisation of fragile African countries and create conditions that are conducive to economic development on the continent. In a sense, therefore, the deployment in the CAR could be interpreted as an attempt by South Africa to safeguard its investment in peacebuilding in the DRC. There is no gainsaying that if the instability in the CAR is left unchecked, it could spill over to the DRC and undermine the efforts of South Africa and other external actors in stabilising the war-torn country.
In the end, one cannot dispute the fact that there were justifiable reasons for the South African government to deploy troops in the CAR, particularly if due regard is given to the fundamental principles and general orientation of South Africa’s foreign policy.
Mr John Mashala is a research assistant at the IGD and his ideas do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.