South Africa has found itself in a situation where it looks more like an Executive Outcomes B-team than a regional power seeking to contribute to peace and stability on the continent. Over the weekend, approximately 200 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops were involved in a nine-hour battle with Séléka rebels in the Central African Republic. Séléka, an alliance of anti-government armed groups, had launched a rebellion against President François Bozizé in December 2012, only halting their offensive to negotiate the terms of the Libreville agreement in January.
In early January 2013, South African President Jacob Zuma authorized the deployment of 400 SANDF to help train the Central African Republic Armed Forces (FACA), as well as assist in the planning and implementation of the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process. (Apparently, only 200 troops had been deployed thus far). Potential reasons for the SANDF deployment to the Central African Republic vary. On one hand, it may be a natural progression of South Africa’s pursuit of regional influence on the continent, and perhaps a way to counter French influence. On the other, South Africa may have commercial interests in the Central African Republic.
The deployment was in accordance with the provisions of section 201 (2) (c) of the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which states that “Only the President, as head of the national executive, may authorize the employment of the defence force in fulfillment of an international obligation.” The international obligation to which the constitution referred was, in this case, a five-year military cooperation agreement initially signed between South Africa and the Central African Republic in 2007, and renewed in December 2012.
In early January, a SANDF spokesperson stated that the purpose of the SANDF deployment was not to engage rebel fighters, but to train the FACA. Accordingly, they were not combat-equipped, making them vulnerable to attack and likely to suffer heavy casualties if Séléka engaged them in battle – which they did when Séléka broke the ceasefire as a result of Bozizé’s unwillingness to implement the terms of the peace agreement. During the course of Séléka’s push towards Bangui, 13 SANDF were killed, seven were wounded, and one is missing in action. The South African National Defence Force Union (SANDU) subsequently released a statement condemning the involvement of the SANDF and asserting that the deployment should have been curtailed the moment Bozizé showed signs of not honoring the January 2013 Libreville agreements. In a press conference on Monday, Zuma stated that troop casualties were suffered whilst SANDF was defending a South African military base outside Bangui, stating “Wherever our troops are deployed they have the duty to defend themselves if their positions fall under attack.”
The events of this past weekend cast a shadow upon the previously constructive role South Africa has played with regard to conflict resolution in Africa, and taints its image as a neutral broker for future peace agreements on the continent. South Africa’s experience transitioning from apartheid to democracy provides a prime example of a peaceful transition that occurred on the heels of a deeply divisive period of history. Yet, Zuma’s decision to deploy the SANDF in support of the Bozizé regime has negated South Africa’s ability to present itself as a nonpartisan broker between Séléka and remnants of the ancien régime.