SANDF deployment not done without planning

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

By Siphiwe Dlamini

The deployment of a contingent of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as part of the SADC Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) and the subsequent tragic deaths of Captain Simon Mkhulu Bobe and Lance Corporal Irven Thabang Semono have provided plenty of grist to the opinion mill.

It should. We are a democracy and this is a people’s defence force – and its role and its use should be debated.

There are major and justifiable concerns about budget implications. The lack of sufficient air cover for the mission and that this deployment might be fatally overstretching the SANDF’s capacity has been raised by some as a concern.

None of these are new concerns; successive chiefs of the SANDF have raised these precise issues in the past, along with their chiefs of service.

But these concerns ignore the reality that this deployment was not done in haste, nor without the requisite planning. There have been numerous discussions at the highest echelons of government about the need to support the SANDF in all its needs, including funding. There is a real commitment to do this.

We should also not forget three critical points in the current discourse, well intentioned or otherwise, about the SANDF.

The first is that the mission in the DRC is not solely a South African tasking but a request from the greater Southern African Development Community to ensure the stability of the region as the United Nations began its well-publicised drawdown of Monusco, its 20 year-long mission to stabilise the DRC, in December last year.

Secondly, there are other countries that will be also contributing to this mission, some of whom will be able to directly address the issue of air cover through the capabilities of their own air forces.

Thirdly, the SANDF has been part of Monusco since its inception, commanding the mission and regularly providing commanders for the smaller three-battalion strong multinational Force Intervention Brigade, the only UN force mandated to use force offensively.

The biggest issue of all though is peacekeeping. SA is a continental leader and has never shied away from the often onerous responsibility to lead these processes, participating from the front, if necessary, putting its money and its troops where its mouth is.

This is not an easy decision and it is not without risks, all of which weigh very heavily upon our commander-in-chief, President Cyril Ramaphosa; the political head; Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise; and chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, before deploying these national assets.

These soldiers are not conscripts, they are volunteers, but all of us know the risks that they will face in the field – and the sacrifices they may well be asked to make – to keep this peace.

It is easy for the keyboard warriors to argue that our horizons should be limited to our land, sea and air borders, but the reality is that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Kivu or Goma could very well create an unstoppable tsunami in Johannesburg or Cape Town.

It’s too late to deal with an insurgency not just on your doorstep but within your borders. This is part of the rationale for the SANDF’s participation in the SADC Mission in Mozambique (Samim) to keep the insurgency in Cabo Delgado at bay.

That is the apex threat – of war and terror in our cities and countryside, but there are other threats, too, of even more refugees seeking a better life in SA, potential economic and criminal risks which put further strain on our law enforcement agencies, the home affairs department, the department of social security and, indeed, our fiscus.

It is said that a stitch in time saves nine. It doesn’t help to just create nonporous borders, where the SANDF is already performing a yeoman and unheralded service as part of the ongoing Operation Corona.

We have to try to resolve issues and create the conditions that are crucial to allowing a sustainable and enduring state of peace on the continent that could otherwise threaten the way of life we aspire to, even though they are not our direct neighbours.

It is this philosophy that has guided the SANDF ever since the days of our first commander-in-chief Nelson Mandela, when he worked tirelessly to bring peace to the Great Lakes Region.

*Siphiwe Dlamini is Head of Communications at the Department of Defence.

**This article first appeared in The Citizen on 1 March 2024.