South Africa

Uproar over SANDF deaths in DRC

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The recent casualties suffered by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have ignited a fierce political storm, particularly for the governing ANC as critics assail the decision to deploy troops to the conflict-ridden region.

With two soldiers killed and three injured in an attack during the Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC), government finds itself under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of recklessness and poor judgment in committing military personnel to a volatile foreign theatre.

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Steven Gruzd, head of the African governance and diplomacy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said it was no secret that the SANDF was severely underfunded, had outdated equipment and a very old average age for soldiers.

“It is already deployed in northern Mozambique as part of the static force. So I think many people were surprised when we signed up for yet another intervention force in a very complex conflict zone, the eastern DRC,” he said.

“[This is a place] where there are many warring parties, there are militias from other countries, there are African Union forces trying to keep the peace.

“So, we’ve gone into a very complicated matter and I think the deaths of these soldiers has brought home to South Africa how complex and difficult the peacekeeping missions can be.”

Criticism of the decision has been amplified by growing public discontent, even from opposition parties, with outrage over the perceived disregard for the lives of SANDF personnel.

Many South Africans have also questioned why the country is being entangled in a distant conflict, especially when the risks to soldiers’ lives appear so high.

“This really looks quite bad for the ANC and for the government to have suffered casualties, and it really turns the spotlight on the decay and the decline of the SANDF,” said Gruzd.

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But political analyst Prof Lesiba Teffo said while the ANC grappled with the repercussions of the SANDF casualties in the DRC, the incident could become a rallying point for opposition parties.

“That is cheap politicking for me because the ANC is the government and has signed certain protocols that it should make sure it at least honours – and it is trying to do that,” he said.

“But you do those within the constraints of your resolve. You are informed by what you have. You cut your suit according to the cloth you have.

“At this juncture, the amount spent on foreign missions, we are involved in the DRC, we are involved in Sudan we are involved in Mozambique. And I’m sure we’re talking five billion plus and the people who are raising voices should do that without politicising it.

“I think they should be prudent when it comes to how far they can be involved and how much they can spend, given the economic challenges the country is faced with.”

Teffo said this was not about the ANC but about commitment. “Yes, it’s election time. But I would rather look at it as a commitment we have made and we must honour the commitment based on what we can afford,” he added.

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In an interview with the SABC, defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman echoed Gruzd’s words and said the SANDF “unfortunately has essentially been run into the ground due to underfunding and overstretch, not due to the fault of the people – there’s nothing wrong with our soldiers.

“They have done well in every operation. “But without the equipment, without the money to operate the equipment and become really proficient with it, you can’t do the job,” he said.

He noted that with SAMIDRC, border patrol, zama zama tracing, protecting power stations and Mozambique, at least 11 300 personnel were deployed.

“The army’s got nothing much left to give… it is now fully stretched, in fact overstretched. That is deeply irresponsible of government,” Heitman said.