Row over South Africa's role in CAR's rebellion

South African soldiers carry the coffins of their colleagues who died during a battle with rebels in the Central African Republic at Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria on 28 March 2013

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South Africa is quite an insular, self-contained nation. People here talk, without irony, about going to "Africa", when they venture into the vast, messy continent to the north.

That is not to say that South Africa does not involve itself in the affairs of Africa, or send troops on multi-national peacekeeping operations in places like Darfur in Sudan.

But it does so - at least in the minds of the public - at arm's length, and without any great sense of scrutiny.

Start Quote

We are not used to seeing our soldiers coming home in body bags”

End Quote Nick Dawes Mail and Guardian editor

But now this country has been genuinely stunned by the news that 13 of its soldiers were killed last month during a chaotic rebellion in the Central African Republic (CAR).

More to the point, people are starting to ask some unusually pointed, angry questions about exactly what those soldiers were doing in CAR and why they had not been pulled out when the security situation began to crumble.

The extraordinary allegation, spelled out here, is that far from taking part in a selfless training operation they were part of a murky business deal involving South Africa's governing African National Congress, and the now-toppled CAR President Francois Bozize.

"We are not used to seeing our soldiers coming home in body bags," said Nick Dawes, editor of the Mail and Guardian newspaper that is asking some of the toughest questions of the South African authorities.

"People are very disturbed. I think the government and ruling party are waking up to what a serious problem they've created - which is why there was such a hysterical reaction today."

Seleka rebels, who seized Bangui in a rapid-fire assault a week ago, patrol south of Bangui, on 1 April 2013 The rebels in CAR seized power just over a week ago

The "hysteria" Mr Dawes mentions refers both to the ANC's furious statement that his newspaper was "pissing on the graves" of South Africa's dead soldiers, and to President Jacob Zuma's indignant remarks given at a memorial service for the 13 men.


It was hardly the occasion for a detailed rebuttal, and President Zuma did not offer one.

Start Quote

The problem in South Africa is that everyone wants to run the country”

End Quote President Jacob Zuma

He insisted that the soldiers were "heroes" who had died "for a worthy cause… promoting peace and stability" on the continent.

But Mr Zuma also went much further - explicitly questioning the right of journalists and others to probe the state on matters of security.

"The problem in South Africa is that everyone wants to run the country," he said, arguing that the ANC - with its hefty parliamentary majority - should be "given space to do its work".

Some will nod their heads at that. Others will find Mr Zuma's comments alarmingly self-serving.

And many will, surely, agree that the best way to honour the memory of those 13 dead soldiers is to make absolutely sure that South Africa finds out the truth about the military deployment in CAR.

Did South Africa's parliament - ANC and opposition - fail in its duty of oversight?

Have the distinctions between the government's duties and the narrower interests of the ANC become dangerously blurred?

Has the leadership of the South African armed forces become overtly politicised?

And did shady business deals in an isolated, unstable, mineral-rich African country (sounds familiar) lead to something that may one day be held up as South Africa's worst military scandal since the fall of apartheid?

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Pre 1994 SA Army had the most feared military machine in Africa that was capable waging war and winning against Russian, East German and Cuban aided governments. We had the best "special forces unit" commonly called the "Recces" (Reconnaissance unit) according to Janes Defence Weekly. This has all been disbanded by a government who feared it's own military... Now they reap the reward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    @Cape Town , I 'm not talking about numbers of soldiers or military hardware. Manufacturing military hardware and being versed in the art of war are two different things. In fact having millions of soldiers has got nothing to do with being a military powerhouse. I am talking about the real art of war in different terrains and environment. South African soldiers were naive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It looks like SA security system is heavily infiltrated by external forces that observed the structural weakness. Even J Zuma is completly lost as to why he sent troops to CAR. The basic reason: ANC does not understand how the African Politics work. This is ANC's tragedy emanating from their being incompetant in International political scene. Remember the Mandela Abacha blunder in the 90s!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    No, Mr. Zuma, everyone doesn't want to run the country--but the people have the right to question government actions and policies. The ANC fought for decades to give every citizen that right as well as the right to vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    South Africa has a lot to learn if it wants to conduct peace keeping operations outside the framework of AU and UN missions. As far as I am concerned, the South African government totally misread the situation in the CAR, and now it has paid the consequences. A lot of South Africans are angered by the fact that this was allowed to happen, an event that was entirely avoidable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @ Ade: South Africa may not be the most powerful military force in Africa concerning numbers, but after Egypt, it is by far the most advanced military force in Africa in terms of technology, much of which has been developed at home. This is evident in the size of the local arms industry, by far the largest in Africa. Many African states make use of South African manufactured military equipment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    "South Africa is a major military and political force in Africa..." I certainly dont think there is anything to prove this. Economic wise, South Africa is but military wise... that is still a dream for SA. You dont need millions of Soldiers to crush a handful of poorly armed rebels. And certainly this singular act of failure is a proof that South Africa is not a military force in Africa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    theotherside: I think you meant "take off the blinders not the blinkers". What exactly did I say that was incorrect? That there are 13 political parties in South Africa or that 79% South Africans are Black? Or the 9% whites still maintain their wealth after the end of apartheid ? The last time I checked, majority rules in a democracy. If majority South Africans wants to vote for the ANC, so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    South Africa should send their soldiers to Nigeria to learn the art of jungle war. Nigeria successfully helped many african nations to crush rebels... South Africa is a child in that business... By the way, why did South Africa not involve AU in this act of messing with another country's internal affairs? Nonetheless, condolences to the families of those soldiers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Seleka Fighters encounter S.A. National Defense Force (SANDF); attack outnumbered South Africans, killing 13, wounding 28.
    Theft of Sino oil purchases was provocative, coming in midst of BRICS Durban Conference. Chinese President - China would “intensify" trade with Africa = $20B credit over next 2 yrs. Imperialist backing for Seleka is strategy aimied to limit China’s AFRICAN influence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    South Africa is a major military and political force in Africa and obviously will be involved in maintaining its interests throughout the continent.
    We shouldn't be surprised with their presence in CAR. It's a pity there weren't more of them and they might have been able to repulse the Chadian invasion

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Like all one party states (& lets be honest, the ANC will be effectively in sole power for decades), the SA Govt is corrupted by that power. They are increasingly not Mandelas heirs, & are ever more like Zimbabwe. This even holds true for foreign adventures DRC gold to Zimbabwe is like CAR to SA ... money grabs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    If JZ actually started running the country then others wouldn't feel the need to run it.

    Stop making a select few of your friends, family and supporters very rich at the expense of everything else.

    It's a country you're meant to be in charge of it's not a Mafia crime patch to be raped and pillaged.

    Hopefully the SA public and authorities don't let this slide off old Teflon Zuma again.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    In any kind of internal conflict, the ANC always supports the incumbent government. That has meant Saddam Hussain in Iraq, Mugabe in Zim, Gbagbo in Cote D'Ivoire, even Assad in Syria. And now Bozize in the CAR. I suspect it is because of an underlying assumption that if they help other governements suppress dissent, then the other dovernements will assist them in turn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Alando - skye_eg is right (thanks). But come to think of it, which continent is not vast or messy? Here's that link again tobus: and another for good measure:

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    I *think* he meant that that's how *South Africans* view the north, or at least most of it. At least that's how I interpreted that comment. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Mr. Harding,
    Sir, I am disappointed with your characterization of some African Countries to quote you "the vast, messy continent to the north" Your hasty generalization is totally devoid of facts. Sure, some Countries up north do suffer from political instability but that is not true of all. I find your description condescending and dismissive. You should know better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Not sure where you're from Kingsley, but you should take the blinkers off.


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