Soldier deaths in CAR the result of flawed foreign policy
Thirteen South African soldiers were killed in the conflict-ridden country on Sunday after a coalition of rebel forces invaded the capital city of Bangui.
A further 27 soldiers were injured and one more soldier is missing. Central African Republic's (CAR) President François Bozizé fled to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rebel leader Michel Djotodia has since declared himself interim president.
On Monday Zuma told the press that the deployment was "part of our efforts to contribute towards peace and stability in the region".
But Zuma's statement left reporters with more questions than they had before he began speaking.
Zuma said he sent Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to the CAR to assess the situation following an armed campaign by the Seleka rebel coalition in early December. Her report recommended an intervention, he said.
But by mid-February, Mapisa-Nqakula told foreign affairs correspondent Mandy Rossouw that, as a government of national unity was in place and the country was beginning to stabilise, South Africa should consider pulling out of the country.
It did not do so was because UN representative Margaret Vogt pleaded with South Africa and neighboring countries to wait. Mapisa-Nqakula confirmed the cost of the deployment at R1-billion.
Zuma said South Africa would reject any attempt to seize power by force and would "support sanctions and other measures against the perpetrators of any unconstitutional change of government".
This was despite the fact that Bozizé, who had the VIP protection of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops for several years, himself came to power through a coup and was accused of legitimising his presidency through two rigged elections.
Zuma said the soldiers were defending their military base and that "wherever our troops are deployed, they have the duty to defend themselves if their positions fall under attack".
But the idea that the SANDF troops were merely defending their base was disputed.
According to Reuters, regional peacekeeping sources said the South Africans were engaged in fighting alongside the CAR's army on Saturday to prevent the rebels from entering the capital.
Why were they deployed to the country to begin with?
The official reason for the January deployment of 200 troops to the country was that the deployment took place in terms of a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and the CAR to build capacity for the defence forces in the country.
According to Zuma, South Africa was to provide the CAR's army with military, infantry, artillery and Special Forces training, as well as logistics, driving courses and the refurbishment of military infrastructure in the two main cities.
This was renewed for a further five years in December. Given that the CAR's army was just over-run over in the capital city, whether it was successful or not is up to debate.
When the operation was revealed to Parliament earlier this year, the Democratic Alliance's spokesperson on defence, David Maynier, questioned whether the SANDF had the capacity to support and sustain this military operation and why the defence force was being deployed into what was essentially a civil war.
Maynier said it was his view that Zuma mislead Parliament about the reasons for deploying the troops and on Monday called for a full scale parliamentary inquiry into why it was done.
Sanusha Naidu, senior researcher at the South African Foreign Policy Initiative, said the details around exactly what South African troops were doing in the CAR was "fuzzy".
The troops were seen by some to be propping up an unpopular military dictatorship, which did not abide by the January agreement to enact reforms and release political prisoners, she said.
Naidu was referring to the Libreville peace accord signed in early January, during which rebel forces agreed to the formation of the coalition government with Bozizé at its head, provided he met certain conditions.
Among these was the stipulation that soldiers from South Africa and Angola leave the country.
As a result, South Africa's presence in the CAR was a sore point for the Seleka rebels.
Naidu described the Bangui affair as a "debacle" for South Africa's foreign policy.
"The rebels see South Africa as being in alliance with Bozizé and don't want to talk to South Africa. According to some reports they would rather speak to France, China and [Economic Community of Central African States] partners," she said.
Defending the government
Fritz Nganje, a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, speculated that the SANDF troops' role in the CAR might have evolved.
"Some reports suggest they were fighting alongside CAR troops, which gives the indication that their role there might have expanded to trying to defend the incumbent government," he said.
"Just last week Bozizé had a meeting with President Zuma here in South Africa ... There's some suggestion he was here to plead for help to defend his government in the face of an imminent attack."
Nganje added that one reason why the CAR seemed so attractive to South Africa could be that instability in there would spill back into the DRC and could affect South Africa's peacekeeping efforts there.
"The important lesson for South Africa to consider now is how it approaches its peace efforts on the continent ... In some cases without a clear-cut peace agreement or consensus among the belligerents you may find yourself perceived as propping up one actor and then finding yourself in a very uncomfortable situation," he said.
'A series of mistakes'
Paul Simon Handy, head of conflict prevention division at the Institute for Security Studies said the incident was a disaster for South Africa's foreign policy and that the country was paying a high price for a poorly thought out plan.
"South Africa had made a series of mistakes its involvement in the CAR," he said.
"Sending troops without sufficient and serious logistical support might have been, in hindsight, a mistake ... South Africa also got involved in a region that is out of Southern African Development Community without the blessing of the regional economic community [Economic Community of Central African States], which it failed to involve in a peace process to resolve the crisis ... SA should have at least looked for the blessing of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union," he said.
But its biggest mistake however was to ignore Eccas when it got involved in a regional conflict.
South Africa had "completely ignored" the political peace process put in place earlier in the year by the regional economic community, he said, and countries in Central Africa were upset by South Africa's involvement.
The agreement negotiated by Eccas under the leadership of the DRC appaled to to non-regional forces to leave the country.
"This tragic ending will probably have some bad consequences for South Africa's role on the continent and could decrease its popularity in the Central African region," he said.