CAR reports sweep truth aside - Maharaj

Mac Maharaj, spokesperson for the presidency. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Mac Maharaj, spokesperson for the presidency. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The coverage is an astounding model of how reportage gets bent to present preconceptions as truth.

The scene setter is an analysis by Nic Dawes entitled "Have our leaders learned their lesson?" His point of departure is that the "original deployment" in 2007 was to prop up the "unpopular regime" of former President François Bozizé.

Bozizé came to power in a coup in 2003. He was elected president in 2005. As a result of the conflict that ensued, the African Union Peace and Security Council sent two missions to evaluate the situation.
The council called for dialogue among the parties and urged AU member states to provide support for socioeconomic recovery and the consolidation of peace and stability in the CAR.

South Africa's 2007 memorandum of understanding to build the capacity of the defence and security sector was in line with this appeal and was part of a process to resolve the conflict in CAR. Dawes has no place for such inconvenient facts.

He claims the purpose of that original deployment "seems" to have had three motives: the advancement of commercial interests of South African companies, a desire to project South African power into "Francophone Africa" and an attempt to seize from France the initiative in resource businesses and regional politics.

He gives the impression that there is something inherently wrong with South African businesses finding opportunities beyond our borders. He ignores the fact that since 1994 South Africa has been active in promoting the regional integration of economies, charting the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the continent-wide infrastructure programmes, as well as the creation of a free-trade area. The aim is to increase trade and investment between African countries.

Bilateral relations
Our department of trade and industry actively promotes the opening up of opportunities in Africa, particularly where we have bilateral relations. It is completely legal for South African businesses to be present in the CAR or anywhere else they choose.

But the presence of South African business in the CAR or any other country does not determine our foreign policy or our deployment of troops. The presence of economic opportunities does not determine the deployment of troops either. The pursuit of the goals of African renewal drives our African policy, which is closely linked to our domestic interests of employment creation, overcoming inequality and eradicating poverty.

South Africa's national interests are fully aligned with the pursuit of peace, development and democracy. To unpack these objectives as Dawes has done in the case of the CAR is disingenuous. His analysis is constructed in such a way as to give the impression that the reports in the same edition are proof of the correctness of his assumptions.

His analysis is followed by a report that claims that "humiliated South Africa was given its marching orders" by the leaders of the Central African countries. Not true. For the record, this is the first time a coup has been unanimously denied legitimacy. In previous instances, including that of the CAR when Bozizé assumed power, the AU and its regional groupings have had to live with the outcome of a coup and look for ways to introduce elements of democracy, peace and stability.

There was pressure to go the same route again. Even before the CAR case arose, President Jacob Zuma had asserted the need for Africa to close the door on coups. This standpoint prevailed and the African summit refused to recognise Michel Djotodia as the CAR president.

Allegations emanating from the Seleka forces or French agencies become a headline. Without a shred of evidence, the question of casualties earns the headline "Army death toll 'could be much higher'".

Hodgepodge of allegations
Dawes began his analysis with the assertion that what happened was "an unprecedented domestic and international disaster for President Zuma and his administration". Any surprise, then, that in the report on casualties the first four paragraphs are devoted to highlighting Radio France Internationale's and a Seleka leader's claim that there were as many as 50 dead on the South African side?

The M&G will claim that it does mention the denial by South Africa and our insistence that 13 lives were lost and 27 sustained injuries. Adherence to the principle of "let the other side be heard" can easily become a fig leaf. The overwhelming thrust of the report is to cast doubt on South Africa's claims.

The next article is headed "Men died for lack of ammunition". It is based on claims of one – yes, exactly one – unnamed SANDF survivor. This time, after eight paragraphs, we have a four-sentence denial of shortage of ammo by the SANDF spokesperson.

Then comes a report headlined "Bozizé in frantic plea for weapons", with the blurb: "Zuma's deployment of troops to CAR followed urgent requests to unlock equipment donation". The report itself is such a hodgepodge of allegations, rumours and speculation that the reader is manipulated to take the heading and the blurb as the key message. Nowhere is there room for the question that, if South Africa, as it is alleged, deployed its soldiers to defend Bozizé, why then would it withhold a donation of arms that were promised in 2007 or 2009?

The M&G rounds up its coverage with a full-page lesson by Greg Mills. "SA should have heeded Black Hawk down" has a blurb that reads: "The country did not learn any lesson from the bitter experiences the Americans had in Somalia." The refrain is the same: disaster.

What we have in this edition of the M&G is blatant advocacy journalism in which the pursuit of what happened in the CAR is no longer of consequence.

Mac Maharaj is the spokesperson for the presidency

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