The Hard Questions that Bangui Leaves South Africa
This piece was submitted a week ago to one of South Africa’s most popular online news sites, but was rejected as being overly critical of the media’s CAR narrative. We disagree, but decide for yourself.
It’s a fortnight on, and the story of South African soldiers’ deaths in the CAR has begun to wane. But in between the asinine posts about when to invade African countries and the multiple-exclamation-marked and Tennyson-quoting hysterics of the DA’s shadow minister of defence and military veterans, South African media coverage in the last two weeks has frequently chosen to opt for screaming ‘rout’, and reinforcing existing Zuma-implicating conspiracy thinking over sticking to the actual facts of the case and looking beyond ANC politics for the broader questions that the CAR imbroglio raises.
Journalist were quick to frame the deaths of the thirteen South African troops as a fiasco, and take the Defence minister’s phrase “protecting South African assets” from her cack-handed encounter with the press as meaning “our army is protecting some sort of corrupt dealing”. Which provided a quick and cathartic fillip to the ongoing national epic of the ANC as an increasingly corrupt, bloody and inept organisation. Both views of what happened in Bangui are wholly incorrect, as it turns out after a modicum of digging, but frustrated readers like to have simple views confirmed, and without a lawsuit to compel it, the media aren’t partial to apologising or clarifying. The wheel of scandal can just turn over next week and replace this story with whatever contemptible crime some or other public official is up to.
The problem of course, is that you end up turning something like what happened in the CAR into some kind of news piñata, from which the lessons we learn are simple, cathartic, and misdirected. Which is not to say that there are not serious questions that the whole shenanigans should leave us with. It’s just to point out that they aren’t questions of being angry that ‘we got massacred’, or that ‘Zuma and cronies are using the army abroad to guard their mines’, as Bantu Holomisa clearly lept to conjecturing. The latter case being unusually direct, since it’s bad aspersion-casting etiquette to point specifically to something like mineral rights, because people can then investigate and tell you that there don’t appear to be any obvious conflicts of principle. It’s far more elegant to simply put the minister’s ‘South African assets’ remark in scare quotes and let cynical readers image Aurora in the CAR.
But now we have an account of what happened in Bangui that is as complete as anything we are ever likely to see. It makes for gripping reading and assuming that it is true (for lack of any reason not to), thirteen dead troops is frankly miraculous given how the battle unfolded. If there was a massacre, then it was of the Seleka forces.
We also have explanations of why were were in the CAR which appear to be legally sound, if not politically or strategically the smartest possible decisions in hindsight. We know what the operations Morero and Vimbisela were about, and we also have some idea of the reasoning that led to the deployment of special forces and paratroopers with no air or decent armour support. And we’re as sure as we can be that none of this had anything to do with protecting any corrupt investments short of Bozize himself. Who, in any event, would seem preferable to a violent, looting militia running the country.
And so the conspiracy theories of the early days, so hastily implied on the basis of no actual evidence, should be considered settled barring any major revelations. But the fuller account of the battle and the decisions that lead to it raise very real questions. Ones that require that serious attention be given to how the government makes its strategic military commitments, its utter disdain for its citizens’ right to know, and that the president and his defence minister appear to have absolutely no appreciation of the limits of the forces they are so enthusiastically committing to the continent’s fractious areas.
What exactly is our overall rationale for deploying where we do?
Our last completed defence review, fourteen years ago, decided that the SANDF didn’t have a role in peacekeeping on the continent. Which meant that we built a different kind of SANDF more suited to policing our seas than airlifting troops or – god forbid – heavy weapons or a helicopter to other parts of the continent.
Our leaders have clearly decided that there is more of a role for South Africa in African peacekeeping. And while there are good arguments for becoming more active in security issues – contrary to the facile ‘all guns are bad and we should all just negotiate’ blogs that occasionally opine on African peacekeeping – this new direction raises questions that have not even begun to be properly reasoned out. Setting up well-equipped missions of any decent length is an expensive national exercise, not to mention a literal case of possibly sending South African citizens to die. It needs to be clearer why we get involved in some conflicts and not others. Why we decide to support the CAR and not invest more in South Sudan or the DRC. “Because Bozize asked” is not a smart enough reason for ending up between his palace and a Chadian- and Sudanese-backed rebel army.
If we are going to intelligently use the resources of the SANDF as a force for good on the continent, then there needs to be much, much more clarity on why, how and where we deploy. Which requires a government that has actually considered working out the answers to those questions and journalists who are capable of asking “how does CAR fit into our overall Africa strategy”, or “Why are we deployed in the places we are?” rather than stopping at “why were in CAR last week”.
What happened in Bangui has created a broader public awareness that our armed forces seem to be in a number of places that even the above-average South African reader had no idea we were in. We are in South Sudan, we are going to the DRC, and we may, for a time, have been in Libya when it was falling apart. It’s inexcusable that we are stretching this far without a real foreign policy, and that our citizenry has so little awareness.
Which brings us to the next question.
Why is it so hard to cover our troops?
Right after the battle in Bangui became known, enough journalists emailed the SANDF requesting embeds to have utterly broken their airlift capacity. All, as far as I am aware, were stonewalled. Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and President Zuma have made plain that they are irritated by the country questioning their decisions, and given a choice would prefer that you shut up and let the state do what is in its opinion best. Which is, incidentally, much like the attitude of the state when it once sent soldiers into Angola, or money and materiel for RENAMO’s decades-long wrecking of Mozambique.
Not allowing the details of our troops’ reasons for being where they are, the battles they fight and the reality of war is an excellent recipe for letting ill-reviewed and irresponsible decisions flourish. Just as the government needs a coherent strategy for the deployment of its troops, the families of those soldiers and the citizens in whose interests they are deployed need to know enough to hold their leaders to account. It’s not enough to effectively be told ‘trust me, I’m in charge’ when it comes to killing people in foreign lands. The minister and the president would do well to exchange their arrogance for an honest and shared discussion of the military work we do.
Embeds would be a start. It would be nice to hear the voices of our troops in the field, and understand what it means to serve in places like the DRC. With varying degrees of freedom, other militaries have managed to accommodate this. Ours fails abjectly. But even if having a journalist or two hanging along remains for the time being beyond feverish imaginings of the SANDF, being able to coherently collect the facts of the case and convey them in an open and transparent fashion is surely not beyond the capacity of our military and public officials? Between the arrogance of the Defence Minister and the affable-but-vague responses of defence chief Gen. Solly Shoke, it should not be this difficult to get direct answers to simple questions about where we were deployed, whether support was available, or why our troops are exposed to particular risks.
Our leaders must recognise the limits of SA military capacity
The 1998 defense review created an SANDF geared for no foreign deployments. We are now involved in at least three. From the most complete account of the events leading up to the battle of Bangui, SANDF chiefs made plain that the defence force was not equipped to carry out the mission asked of them without significant risk. We had to charter the planes to carry our light armour to Bangui because we have none that are suitable. We have no plane capable of carrying a Rooivalk short of dismantling it first, and we cannot fly our Grippens that far north without having to stop at the DRC equivalent of a petrol station along the way.
Despite these concerns being made clear to government, the army was told to deploy anyway. And so did the best they did with what they had. Sending elite troops, for example, rather than regular infantry. Those troops performed incredibly well, from what we know about the battle, but they shouldn’t have had to. We should have either been in Bangui with overwhelming force, or not there at all. Fighting a war should never be a case of ‘making do’, giving the proverbial tyres a kick, and hoping everyone doesn’t die.
If we are going to involve ourselves more in Africa’s security, then we need to fund and equip any army that can help protect lives in the continent’s most dangerous places without needlessly risking their own. Our government knew we were under-equipped, but chose to force the deployment. Sustained and intelligent questioning, based on meaningful access to information about our capabilities and intentions is the only way to ensure that the pressure exists to make the SANDF better able to manage the risks of deployment.
The tragedy is not that thirteen servicemen died in the CAR, it’s that they shouldn’t have had to. That our government appears to see the army as an over-extendable, ad hoc policy tool, the lives of its soldiers as an abstract cost, and the citizens of the country as a nagging pest.
These, rather than facile hyperbole and insinuations of corruption, are the hard challenges.
Image by Barbourians