Jacob Zuma gave a new reason for SA troops sent to the Central African Republic, while attacking his critics and the media. But neither has hit home.
The additional 200 South African troops sent to the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this year were deployed there to face a specific threat, President Zuma said on Tuesday.
"These additional soldiers were not trainers. They were not deployed to train, but as a protection force for the trainers," Zuma said at the military memorial service for the 13 soldiers who died in the CAR late last month.
The decision to deploy those troops, he said, was taken after the security situation in CAR deteriorated. In addition to guarding military trainers already in-country, they were also intended to protect military assets.
But that is not what the presidency said at the time.
On January 6 this year, the presidency announced that it would send up to 400 soldiers to the CAR, although only 200 were deployed.
"The employed members of the [South African National Defence Force] will assist with capacity building of the CAR Defence Force and will also assist CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration processes," Zuma's office said at the time. Neither protective duty nor a poor security outlook was ever mentioned.
That was not Zuma's only apparent attempt at recasting history.
Africa Check, a fact-checking initiative by the Wits journalism department and the AFP Foundation, said Zuma was "misleading" in suggesting that South African soldiers killed in CAR had been on nothing more than a training mission.
"President Zuma's clear attempt on Tuesday to suggest that the South African soldiers were in the CAR for training purposes only is misleading at best," wrote researcher Julian Rademeyer, referring to Operation Morero, which provided South African soldiers as bodyguards for now-ousted CAR president François Bozizé. "The president's careful use of words demonstrates once again that often, it is not what politicians say, but what they don't say, that is telling."
No end of questions in sight
Zuma also enjoined various unnamed parties from asking questions about the CAR deployment, in a clear reference to the media, opposition parties, a union and various commentators.
But the president's contention that demanding information from the government on the CAR mission could endanger the state found no takers among those groups.
Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos, who has been vocally questioning the legal basis of the deployment, said he was unlikely to stop doing so.
"It puts our country and our troops at risk by not asking these questions," he said. "Saying we should shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how democracy works. It really is very disrespectful to the human dignity of citizens who are supposed to have agency and be able to make decisions about their world. They can only do that if they are informed."
The Democratic Alliance (DA) too dismissed any suggestion that it should stop demanding answers.
"That would be a failure of opposition, if we sat back and didn't ask any more questions on such a central issue," said DA spokesperson Mmusi Maimane. "In terms of where the presidency is this is a very critical mission, one that is setting a trend. It's not like we can just lie down and take it."
'Tear up the Constitution'
The South African National Defence Union, one of the most strident voices over the last two weeks, on Monday issued a strongly-worded statement in rejection of Zuma's call for an end to questions.
"To suggest that as civil society we should simply forfeit [the constitutional guarantee of civilian oversight of military deployment] is tantamount to telling South Africa to tear up the Constitution," the union said. "The president should not and cannot hide behind sinister terms such as 'national security' and 'national interests', or even peddle the idea that democracy has limits in its accountability. That sounds like the kind of nominal democracy practiced in Beijing."
And Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Nic Dawes reiterated that the paper would not pull back on its coverage.
"Not only should we be asking these questions, it is our absolute duty to ask these questions," Dawes said. "To suggest that we shouldn't simply because there are either military matters or deal with a governing party with a large parliamentary majority is to fundamentally misunderstand democracy."
The presidency on Tuesday night issued a statement titled "Presidency corrects Mail and Guardian selective reporting", in which it said the M&G deliberately chose to ignore his tribute to the soldiers who died in the CAR and obliquely accused this website of partisanship.