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Editorial: War talk darkens sunny Brics fest

Editorial

Waterkloof air force base hasn't received so many body bags since the Angolan war. It is an unmitigated military and foreign-policy disaster.

South Africans, according to numerous reports, were not sitting in their base when they came under attack. (AFP)

All this past week, President Jacob Zuma basked in the autumn sun of Durban – and in the glow of the diplomatic triumph that is South Africa's hosting of the fifth Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit. And, all week, South African soldiers under his ultimate command sweated somewhere on the outskirts of Bangui, out-gunned, overwhelmed, and surrounded by the Seleka rebel group that has  seized control of the Central African Republic (CAR).

Waterkloof air force base hasn't received so many body bags since the Angolan war. It is an unmitigated military and foreign-policy disaster.

Of course, Zuma is having none of that. On the contrary, in an extraordinary statement on Monday morning, he called the Seleka forces "bandits", said he would back African Union sanctions against them, and insisted that South African troops weren't coming home any time soon – despite the dissolution of the government that invited them in the first place.

Zuma will struggle to row back from those statements. And it is the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) that will have to carry out this ­mission in a country far from home, where it has no legitimate ­business, and few friends.

The gulf between the high-wattage show in Durban and the bloody mess in Bangui is a stark illustration of the way foreign-policy energy has been poured into the diplomacy of getting to the top table. It echoes the determination with which South Africa pushed for the placement of a South African in the top job at the African Union, while at the same time offering only confused and paltry suggestions in dealing with continental ­problems developing in places such as Côte d'Ivoire and Libya.

Brics bling is a poor substitute for the detailed set of policy tools – including military options – required to deal with the hard cases a major regional power must confront. No amount of war talk will fill that gap. Indeed, the obfuscation and outright lies of the administration are already falling apart as news seeps out of the CAR, and as angry soldiers at all levels begin to speak.

Brushed aside
For starters, the claim that the mission was purely aimed at "training" is in tatters. South Africans, according to numerous reports, were not sitting in their base when they came under attack: they participated in efforts to block the rebel advance on Bangui as local and Chadian troops faltered. They were, as Reuters put it, "brushed aside". So much for the capacity of the newest Brics member to project power in its own back yard.

There is now the risk, gravely compounded by Zuma's war talk, that the need to recover from this embarrassment will lead to an escalation of South Africa's involvement. Unconfirmed but credible reports of heavy-lift aircraft headed for Entebbe in Uganda, laden with troops and equipment, suggest that more than a quick extraction may be in the offing. Even apart from the worrying echo of Robert Mugabe's self-interested military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, that would be a dire error. A fractious rebel coalition and a UN-backed peace plan in ruins, plus a lack of any multilateral mandate, is a recipe for a political and military quagmire.

The questions, meanwhile, continue to mount. Why are we there in the first place? There can be no plausible claim that the SANDF is protecting democracy. Deposed CAR president François Bozizé took power in 2003 in a Chad-backed coup, later thinly legitimised by a dubious election, and has never been able to build real popular support. It is possible that South Africa thought it could secure a unity ­government and deliver a peacemaking triumph along the lines of Zuma's role in Burundi, but it is hard to see what firm evidence would have formed the basis for that assessment, or whether any hard work was done towards achieving that goal.

There is considerable murk surrounding the other possible motives for a South African presence. As our reporting this week suggests, the original, smaller troop deployment by former president Thabo Mbeki was accompanied by deals that offered the ANC a string of potential benefits. All of that evaporated, but the brokers of minerals rights and political access went straight back to work in Pretoria and around Luthuli House.

Notwithstanding the existence of either a grand – albeit secret – vision, or any grubbier motives, it is difficult to understand the serial failures that followed:

  • The reinforcement in January that upped South Africa's presence, and angered the rebels, but provided neither enough soldiers nor the right gear to secure the mission.
  • The intelligence breakdowns, or the refusal to heed warnings, that saw a small, underequipped force trying to hold an evaporating front line.
  • The apparent absence of any backup plan.

It is hard to see Zuma extricating himself from this mess, but a start would be to end misleading, conflicting and outright false messages emerging from the government. The president cannot drag this country into a war without telling its citizens – and Parliament – why he is doing so, what his objectives are, and how we will know when they are achieved.

The truth is already tumbling out. More is no doubt to come. As this happens, the calls to bring the troops home, take the pain, and explain all this sanguine muddle to the country will only grow louder.

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