South Africa plans to deploy troops to the most troubled part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) soon, on what could be the first aggressive, long-term engagement by the army since 1994. But how many troops will go, how long they will be committed and why they are really going remain unknown.
South Africa's army chief Lieutenant General Vusumuzi Masondo flew to the DRC this week to meet the commanders of the United Nations force stationed there to consider the feasibility and logistics of deploying soldiers.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) this week said it required only a mandate from the UN Security Council to go ahead with the deployment of an intervention force in which South Africa would have a key role.
According to SADC, the contingent will number 4 000 troops at a cost of about $100-million. The SADC planning chief, Brigadier General Maaparankoe Mahao, said this week that the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region estimated that it would cost $100-million, "but we consider this to be a gross underestimate".
The South African National Defence Force would not share details of its preparation, but defence insiders said South Africa was planning to contribute no more than a company of soldiers (about 100) and those would be drawn from members of the army already in the DRC under the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission (Monusco). "Unless things change on the ground we're not planning to send a new team," the insider said.
Monusco has been active in the DRC since 2010, though it is a continuation of a force first deployed in 2 000. That group, of which South Africa forms part, is in effect restricted to shooting back only after being shot at and is widely seen as marginally effective at best.
In 2012, the UN prepared a plan to give Monusco a mandate to engage rebels pre-emptively in the North Kivu province. The plan was even strategically leaked before a meeting of the African Union and the key message was that "peacekeeping" had to give way to the more lethal stance of "peace enforcement".
But giving shoot-first authority to a UN force did not pass muster with several countries, including South Africa and the DRC itself, for reasons ranging from the ideological to the practical. Some analysts point out that South Africa remains embarrassed by European intervention in Libya, and more recently Mali, and the implication that the continent is not capable of solving its own problems. Others believe that a force drawn from the continent would be a lesser impediment to long-term prospects of peace, or that South Africa is keen to gain the trust of the DRC for purely commercial reasons. Others see more personal politics at play.
"We're hearing that there is a lot of concern from on high about [President Jacob] Zuma's legacy as a peacemaker on the continent," said an analyst with close ties to the military. "He's a second-term president; he can afford to look outside the borders now. I strongly suspect we'll see a new wave of South African military involvement across the continent."
There is another theory, spoken about in diplomatic circles but never openly, that the new intervention force is not intended to defeat rebels but to seize key rebel commanders and some of their equipment or documents – enough to draw a line back to the governments of, or powerful political leaders in, Uganda and Rwanda and provide proof that can be used to essentially blackmail those countries into supporting the peace process.
However, most diplomats seem to believe that South Africa was a sometimes reluctant participant in the SADC process that led to the decision to deploy troops and will now be under pressure to deliver manpower and logistics it does not have.
Assuming that other countries do not contribute full battalions to the cause, that would leave the intervention group severely under-strength. Even if it does reach 4 000 troops, some analysts believe it would not be up to the task.
"Something you have to keep in mind about multinational deployments is that you take the total amount of troops and deduct a certain percentage from that, just by the fact that you have problems with co-operation, communication and logistics because they don't come from a single country," said Andrew McGregor, whose Aberfoyle International Security monitors security issues in particularly the Islamic world and who has written about the SADC plan.
"If you send 4 000 men into the DRC, you are not going to get the value from them in terms of a capable combat force."
Strain international relations
A Rwandan insider, who would not be named because his country is wary of comments that could strain international relations, said his country would not take kindly to incursions over its border.
"These soldiers don't know the area [eastern DRC]. There are mountains, and some of the mountains you see when you're in Goma are actually Rwandan mountains. They could easily find themselves on Rwandan ground attacking Rwanda and we're not going to allow anyone to compromise our security."
However, the ultimate risk may be to the lives of South African soldiers, who could find themselves engaged in a long-running war.
"If you want to start a shooting war with the rebel movements, you may be getting yourself into a deep situation that could go on for years and years," said McGregor. "Extricating yourself is hard. What is the exit strategy and how do you define success? If success is the pacification of northeastern Congo, you could be there a while."
A shooting war carried significant risk for the SADC soldiers at the forefront, said Helmoed-Römer Heitman, an independent defence analyst who is also South African correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly. "And given how serious an opponent [rebel group] M23 could turn out to be, there is a real potential for multiple casualties, particularly if we – South Africa, SADC and UN – follow the usual route of engaging with too small a force that is too lightly armed."
Can South Africa field a larger, better equipped force? Probably not.
"We really don't have the capacity," said Abel Esterhuyse, associate professor of strategy at Stellenbosch University's faculty of military science and editor of the South African Journal of Military Studies.
"We have people in CAR [Central African Republic], we have people in the DRC, we have people elsewhere. And don't forget the counterpoaching initiatives and border protection the military is involved in, which is the primary focus right now. To say the army is overstretched is understating things."
An analyst said: "If dead bodies started to come back, the middle class would shrug its shoulders, because they don't have family in the military and don't care for it.
"The people whose sons would be killed are too poor to have a platform and too focused on survival to try to create outrage. The only thing that would turn the average South African against such a deployment is if you convinced them money was being wasted, because that they actually care about."