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South African soldiers have been fighting in a distant land for 20 years

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 2001 as part of the United Nations peacekeeping operation. At a price tag of R20.7-billion a year, the operation is absorbing a sixth of the UN’s peacekeeping budget.

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The SANDF said 28 soldiers have died in the DRC — three in combat — yet few South Africans understand the complexities a deployment of one year at a time in a strange and hostile country demands from a soldier. 

Men and women leave their families at home for the sake of peace in a distant country that lacks even the most basic of amenities and the luxury of a shop around the corner. Troops live and work in tents with a gun always within reach, knowing that a hostile attack can happen at any time. Riding patrol means moving with a bulletproof jacket and a helmet on dirt roads in tropical weather conditions.

When SANDF soldiers were sent to the DRC in 2001, it was only the second time South Africa had deployed peacekeepers in a UN or African Union operation. The first time was to Burundi, also in 2001, and to Sudan, the third, in 2008. South Africa also intervened militarily in Lesotho in 1998 to restore law and order after an attempted coup.

Trouble in the DRC started brewing in 1998 when a rebellion against the government of former president Joseph Kabila started in the Kivu regions. Within weeks, the rebels had seized large areas of the country. Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe promised Kabila military support, but the rebels maintained their grip on the eastern regions. Rwanda and Uganda supported the main rebel movement, the Congolese Rally for Democracy. 

The UN Security Council called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of foreign forces and urged states not to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. After the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement was signed in July 1999 between the DRC and five regional states (Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe), the UN Security Council expedited the UN mission in the DRC after the assassination of Kabila in 2001. The force would also observe the ceasefire and disengagement of forces.

The South African role evolved from peacekeeping to being one of the leading countries in the UN’s first intervention brigade in 2014, using Rooivalk attack helicopters, special forces and a more offensive stance against rebel groups.

According to the UN, the brigade became necessary after the March 23 Movement (M23), which operated mainly in North Kivu, captured the regional capital of Goma in November 2012 despite the presence of 6 000 peacekeepers. 

The intervention brigade was tasked to neutralise, disarm and prevent expansion of all armed groups in the eastern parts of the DRC considered a threat to state authority and civilian security. Even though the M23 militia was the first to be in the crosshairs of the brigade, other Congolese and foreign rebel groups would also come under fire.

The M23 withdrew shortly after the arrival of the Rooivalk helicopters — specifically after initial successes in attacks on hostile bases that caused scores of casualties and destruction among the militants’ ranks.

In the 20 years of the DRC deployment, the country is still not at peace. Some 960 South African soldiers remain a part of the brigade, but the numbers of troops from other countries varies annually.

The SANDF’s current mandate for Operation Mistral, as it is code-named, is extended annually as per the UN request. President Cyril Ramaphosa, the commander-in-chief, has approved the current term until the end of March 2022 for “not more than 957 members”.

In March this year, in a briefing to the joint standing committee on defence, SANDF chief General Rudzani Maphwanya said the UN was downsizing its footprint in the DRC and that the defence force had already withdrawn about 200 of its soldiers. 

He said the current situation in the DRC is “dynamic” because the brigade is being reconfigured.

“[The] United Nations has already started a planned drawdown of the forces, which might be revised again in 2022 on whether armed elements will still be needed, or limited armed elements might remain.”

According to UN statistics, South Africa is not the top troop-contributing country. Pakistan (1 973), India (1 874), Bangladesh (1 631) and Indonesia (1 033) are contributing the most, with South Africa having 960 soldiers in the DRC in July this year.

Like soldiers from other countries, the SANDF has come under fire because its troops committed sexual offences against female colleagues and women in the local population.

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the previous minister of defence, launched an extensive investigation into all incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse within and outside South African borders in peacekeeping missions.

The Mail & Guardian earlier reported on leaked documents dated May 2019, which showed that at least 41 cases of sexual exploitation and assault had been reported. These cases include allegations of rape, transactional sex, sexual abuse and exploitative relationships.

In 2018, the UN confirmed four allegations of sexual misconduct against women and a 17-year-old boy by South African peacekeepers. In at least one instance, the exploitation led to a paternity and child support claim.

“South Africa, as a troop and police contributing country, has launched a number of investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by SANDF personnel deployed in peacekeeping missions internally and externally with a view to hold the perpetrators accountable in line with established legal and medical processes required to facilitate such cases,” she said.

(John McCann/M&G)

At least two incidents among their own forces have led to the deaths of two soldiers. In October 2017, Private Nomathemba Ngeleka, of 5 South African Infantry Battalion, Ladysmith, was killed by her boyfriend, who tried unsuccessfully to shoot and kill himself. Private Elias Mogaki was subsequently sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by a military judge.

Corporal Simanga Arthur Khuselo was killed on 3 June this year while taking part in an operation in Kilia in eastern DRC.

At least 26 other South African soldiers have died in the DRC. Six drowned in 2004 when their Casspir military troop carrier went into a lake. In 2008 another two soldiers died when their vehicle fell through a dilapidated bridge into a river.

According to military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman, peacekeeping operations have a dual purpose. On the one hand, it shows that South Africa is not an island in Africa and that it cares about lasting peace and stability elsewhere on the continent. 

The operations also provide South Africa’s troops with operational experience, which cannot be achieved when soldiers are used only within the country’s borders.

“I do not think we should withdraw, and neither should the aircrews with their Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters. The operation in the DRC has managed to contain any instability to spill across borders. We, as a country, need a stable neighbourhood for our own long-term stability and economy and the region is our most profitable export market.

“People ask what more can be achieved if it didn’t happen in 20 years, but they don’t understand the complexities of how to fix an area which has been volatile for many decades. We should leave when the UN leaves or when they don’t need us anymore.”

The SANDF says the withdrawal of the defence force from the mission will depend on the agreement between South Africa and the UN Security Council.

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