Central African Republic: Have our leaders learned their lesson?

But one thing is certain: this is an unprecedented domestic and international disaster for President Jacob Zuma and his administration.

The original deployment to prop up the unpopular regime of François Bozizé seems to have been motivated by three closely linked objectives: the advancement of commercial interests, including those of senior ANC figures and the party's own investment arm; a desire to project power into Francophone Africa; and the opportunity to seize from France the initiative in both the resource business and regional politics.

On each of those counts, South Africa is now markedly worse off.

The deals cut with Bozizé will be re-examined, rebel leader Michel Djotodia made clear just days after his arrival in the capital.  

And far from asserting its strength on French-speaking turf, the administration has seen its military defeat compounded by the diplomatic humiliation of Wednesday's decision in N'Djamena, Chad, that the remaining South African troops must withdraw.

Read More CAR coverage

Humiliated SA given its marching orders
CAR: Army death toll 'could be much higher'
SA troops could be diverted to DRC

At home, sadness and incomprehension, followed by growing outrage, met the arrival of body bags at Air Force Base Waterkloof.

When you go to war in a democracy, you have to take the people with you. We were only dimly aware of the CAR deployment to begin with, and we certainly were not warned of the risks that precipitated the sending of crack parabats and special forces operators in January.

The government's claims that they were there in response to an African Union request for assistance to that country have convinced no one, perhaps because there is no formal AU mandate for military involvement, let alone the defence of Bangui, only a broad exhortation to help.

Worse, in some ways, the flimsy explanation puts at risk the broad support South Africans have offered for legitimate and properly mandated peacekeeping exercises. The new United Nations brigade that is aiming to secure the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo against the rebel group M23 includes a crucial component of South African forces, who may well be exposed to real fighting.

The appalling intelligence failure that left a small and ill-equipped South African contingent alone to face Seleka on the outskirts of Bangui while regional forces spearheaded by Chad and Bozizé's own troops melted away, raises serious questions for other deployments.

And the shock of seeing flag-draped coffins lined up in a hangar for the first time may weaken the previously solid consensus around our commitments on the continent.

That would be tragic. If it happens, Zuma and his party have only themselves to blame.

Deliberate ignorance
When the Mail & Guardian reported that, from the outset, South African military involvement in the CAR had been entwined with ANC-linked deal-making, the governing party said our reporting was "pissing on the graves of fallen fighters".

Zuma himself picked up the baton at Tuesday's memorial service for the dead soldiers, saying: "The problem in South Africa is that ­everybody wants to run the country. Government must be given the space to do its work of running the country to implement the policies of the ­ruling party that was voted into office by millions of our people.

"There must also be an appreciation that military matters and decisions are not matters that are discussed in public, other than to share broader policy … Those who are engaging in this game should be careful not to endanger both the national interest and the security of the republic."

Those remarks, of course, display deliberate ignorance of the basic principles of constitutional – as opposed to crudely majoritarian – governance. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, they betray the president's failure to understand that he cannot send South Africans to die without a parliamentary mandate and broad public support. That, as he should know from a glance at Iraq, will only be forthcoming if both the ­military and political objectives are credible, and broadly understood.

In the CAR, they were not, and no amount of bluster will correct that. It is a bitter lesson. The question is whether it will be heeded.

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Nic Dawes Author
Guest Author

Related stories

Johannesburg cannot police its future

South Africa’s biggest city is ground zero for debates about the long-term effectiveness and constitutionality of militarised urban policing and how we imagine the post-Covid city

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

Women accuse aid workers of sexual abuse during the DRC’s Ebola crisis

More than 50 women have accused Ebola aid workers from the World Health Organisation...

Civilians need to oversee South Africa’s defence force

ANC officials’ ‘taxi’ ride in an SANDF jet to Zimbabwe is further evidence that more transparency is needed in the military

SANDF mum on serial rapist claim

An internal report on sexual offences at a military academy says the defence force failed a deceased rape victim and has called for an internal investigation

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

Covid-19 info lags as cases shoot up

Vital information apps and websites are outdated as cases begin to mushroom, especially near the coast, just in time for the December holidays

DA leader bought wife a car with ‘corruption’ earnings

Senior Ekurhuleni councillor Shabangu purchased a Ford SUV from an alleged R1.2-million kickback

SAA funds may need a top-up

Industry experts predict the R10.5-billion from the treasury to rescue the airline may not be enough, but the rescue practitioners say the money is enough to ‘settle the sins of the past’

Trump’s mantra of ‘fake news’ harmed media

Viewers and readers need to trust that news outlets are accurate, balanced, fair and impartial

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…