/ 8 July 2011

SA to provide muscle at South Sudan independence bash

A contingent of South African soldiers is providing security for South Sudan’s independence day celebrations in Juba this weekend. South Sudan will become Africa’s 55th state following its secession from Sudan.

South Africa’s consul general in Juba, Gabriel Setlhoke, said the protection of South Africa’s high-level delegation to the celebration was a priority, but that this could be ensured only by assisting to make the celebration secure.

The South African delegation includes President Jacob Zuma, several ministers and the presidential special envoy to Sudan, Charles Ngaqula. The South African National Defence Force would also help with the accreditation of dignitaries. Eighty delegations, including 30 heads of state, will be present at the declaration ceremony.

Asked whether the military co-operation with the government of South Sudan would strain relations with North Sudan, Setlhoke said that South Africa’s high-level delegation had been in Khartoum since July 8. “Everybody is on the same page and understands that it is for the safety of the South Africans principally that the security forces are here.”

According to Setlhoke, the South African government had also been asked to secure South Sudan’s airspace for the celebration period.

“We told the government of South Sudan that if we were to help, it must be something that the South Africans can take care of alone, not with other countries, which would be difficult to co-ordinate. They approached the United States and other countries for help with securing their airspace but they said ‘no’ and pointed to South Africa, and we said we would do it because it is critical for the staging of independence.”

To date, the government of South Sudan has had control of South Sudan’s airspace only to an elevation of 15 000 feet (4 572m). According to Setlhoke: “South Africa will have to bring in the equipment and manpower to secure the airspace above that to the height these planes carrying presidents will fly — 35 000 to 36 000 feet [up to 11 000m].” He said this would be an expensive exercise.

South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation would not give an exact figure for South Africa’s contribution to the celebration.

The South African government is known to be sensitive about the fact that it spent a fortune on mediation, post-conflict reconstruction and development efforts in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo — none of which was in South Africa’s national interest.

But Setlhoke insists South Sudan will be different.

“The situation here is well thought-out. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the north and the south is internationally recognised, whereas such a document never existed between warring parties in the DRC. The DRC also lacked regional support, whereas here it occurs in abundance. You can see this dedication to seeing a positive outcome in the Ethiopians agreeing to send troops into Abyei.

The South African government also has a good relationship with Kenya, the regional power, and this has resulted in a good synergy in regard to South Sudan. The policies of the government of South Sudan are also very clear and we have said we are going to walk with them on this clearly defined path,” he said.

According to local business leader and public intellectual Mou Ambrose, few people understand the depth of the relationship between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and South Africa.

“In the Sudan People’s Liberation Army [SPLA] there is a Mandela 1 battalion and a Mandela 2 battalion. The connection with the SPLA goes back to Mandela’s visit to Ethiopia in 1962, when he received military training alongside SPLA leaders.”

The modern connection, according to government of South Sudan spokesperson Peter Bior, goes back to a visit SPLA leader John Garang paid to Mandela after his release in the Nineties, which resulted in the ANC offering the SPLM their former headquarters in Harare as a liaison base for the Southern African region.

This article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. The views expressed in it are those of the author.