Going to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), even as part of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission, is “reckless” and a “politically expedient military intervention”.
This was the blunt reaction of Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais to South Africa’s commitment to the three-nation SAMIDRC (SADC Mission in DR Congo).
Marais backs his no-holds barred approach to what is seemingly a further SA National Defence Force (SANDF) deployment to the troubled central African country with a call to Commander-in-Chief Cyril Ramaphosa to rescind the decision and recall South African troops when MONUSCO obligations finish.
There has, as yet, been no word from the SADC or the three SAMIDRC countries – Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa – on what the military component of the mission will be. Also not known is, apart from advance elements going to the DRC in December, when the mission will deploy operationally, where it will be based and what forward operating bases (FOBs) it will use and what, if any, aerial assets it will have at its disposal.
Marais sees the potential loss of South African lives as a major risk for the regional bloc deployment, the length of which is also unknown.
He said the reality is the SANDF does not have the capacity to effectively pursue any anti-insurgency campaign against the M23 rebel grouping. The acronym comes from its French title Mouvement du 23 Mars and it comprises largely Tutsi fighters based in the North Kivu province of the DRC. Open source information has it M23 occupies a number of major towns, including Bunagana, Kiwanja, Kitchanga, Rubaya and Ritshuru, as well as controlling “vital roads” to the provincial capital Goma.
Marais echoes the need for proper air cover including transport raised by military experts saying the SADC “brigade” will find it difficult to operate in hostile terrain.
“Perhaps the greatest risk the SANDF faces is their adversary – M23 – has operated in eastern DRC for many years and is familiar with the terrain. Unless the intervention force, apparently led by the SANDF, is well constituted in terms of size and rapid mobility it would be at the mercy of M23 rebels adept at guerrilla tactics.
“This is precisely why MONUSCO and the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) failed to end the M23 rebellion in eastern DRC.”
According to Thomas Mandrup, an expert in African security governance and South African military and foreign policy, the SANDF will lead the SADC intervention force. However, the SANDF is overstretched and underfunded and has been for a long time.
“There is a discrepancy between what the politicians want it to do and the resources available for this. In addition, the South African government has increasingly used the military for domestic security and policing tasks while also deploying soldiers and equipment in complex international peace missions, including combat missions in the DRC and Mozambique and ad hoc shorter international deployments,” he wrote.
“The South African National Defence Force faces a host of challenges. The politicians are seemingly unwilling to prioritise its tasks. Instead of releasing forces by closing one operation, the force is expected to handle an ever increasing number of tasks and deployments at the same time. Many of these are of a more civilian nature, such as sending out army engineers to stop the pollution of the Vaal River or protecting installations of Eskom, the power utility, without additional funding.
“The defence force has problems keeping its equipment operational and has, for instance, only one operational C-130 transport aircraft. It has only a few helicopters available for all domestic and international missions – five Oryx, out of an initial 39, and three Rooivalk, out of 11.
“Hence it will not be able to provide the much-needed air transport and air cover for offensive operations. The soldiers will have to use road transport in the DRC. But the country has very limited functional roads, making it especially difficult to operate and move around during the rainy season.
“The specialised elements and mobile elements, like the paratroops, the reconaissance units and the Special Forces, which can be effective against groups like the M23, are overstretched to such an extent that it negatively affects their operational readiness,” Mandrup stated.
“The South African National Defence Force has reached a stage where it can no longer continue to deploy without significant additional funding and intake of recruits. The force will also have to take a critical look at its institutional structure and set-up. It has too many expensive senior officers, and too few young deployable soldiers,” he concluded.