One of the tangential aspects of the deteriorating situation in the Central African Republic is the controversial role of South African Defence Forces (SANDF). Sent in via a bilateral agreement between Presidents Bozize and Zuma, the SANDF forces (originally called trainers in some reports and peacekeepers in others) suffered up to a dozen casualties over the weekend, making it the greatest loss of South African soldiery since the end of apartheid. “This is tremendously damaging for South Africa and the reputation of what was perceived as one of the major military powers in Africa,” said Alex Vines, an analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London, speaking to Reuters.
Reports out of South Africa, however, describe the 200 SANDF soldiers as paratroopers and Special Forces, not trainers. Their engagement over the weekend with over 1000 rebel troops advancing on the city apparently proved too much for them; it is now unclear what will happen. According to an unconfirmed UN source in Bangui (as reported by Reuters) SANDF had asked the French for assistance in leaving the country. Additionally, the rumour mill in South Africa has it that the soldiers were never really there to protect Bozize as their primary mission, but rather to safeguard South African mining interests and to counter French influence in the region. If that is the case then the irony of asking the French for help to depart will certainly not be lost on the critics.
This is hardly a robust start to Zuma’s ambition to be a power broker throughout the continent, nor a good start to the conference of BRICS nations, now taking place in Durban. It is also likely to fuel the debate within South Africa about what kind of military is appropriate for the country, which has armed itself as if it was going to be fighting a defensive war against foreign invaders, but whose real future will lie in peacekeeping operations throughout the continent. Another option is that Zuma will attempt to revive South Africa’s apartheid era role as a regional ‘enforcer’, if that is the case then the country’s force readiness is surely in question.
Meanwhile, back at home South Africa, social media is laying bare the country’s own tensions and contradictions with some critics calling the SADF a disgraceful band of “road-blockers”. Others are calling on Zuma to send in reinforcements, even though it appears that the battle for Bangui is over. Most South Africans seem more sceptical than angry about what its soldiers are doing in the CAR, many commentators simply asked that prayers be made for the lost young men.
Whatever happens, South African military and foreign affairs specialists have to examine the CAR situation and figure out how to prevent such a debacle from occurring again. It might be advisable for South Africa to refrain from acting unilaterally in deploying troops and coordinate more effectively with the African Union and the United Nations.
In addition to the South African contingent, the CAR is also hosting Ugandan troops and U.S. Special Forces on the ground who have been pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army. It is unclear how these operations will be affected by the coup as these forces were brought in by deposed President Bozize.
South Africa will have to revise its training policies as well as its inventory of military hardware and deploy its intelligence services in such a manner that they have a better understanding of the threats faced by their conventional forces. That a supposedly well trained and well armed national army can be overwhelmed by rebel fighters is certainly not unprecedented, but when it does happen military heads usually roll and force deployment doctrines are overhauled. This is hardly Dien Bien Phu, but it should serve as a wake up call to SANDF planners.
More importantly, however, might be the future political role of South Africa outside its own borders. The African Union’s ‘African Solutions for African Problems’ doctrine, which Zuma apparently supports, is sure to be tested. However, if Zuma interprets this as a mandate to unilaterally deploy South African military in defence of its own economic interests (or to protect its friends) then the country’s influence is likely to wane. Ultimately, it may also be viewed as ‘mercenary’, which is how the rebels in Bangui have chosen to describe the South African incursion.
Rather than being invited in, South Africa will now have to watch from the sidelines as the future of the CAR is decided. This is certainly a missed opportunity for Pretoria to exert its influence in the region. It also has the negative effects of exposing important weaknesses in SA’s military readiness and exacerbating some political tensions back home.
Michael Keating is a Lecturer in the International Relations Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is also a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org