In a wholly unsatisfactory Thursday meeting of the parliamentary joint standing committee on defence, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was adamant that the only “assets” South African troops were in the CAR to protect were some military equipment. It’s hard to imagine how the family of the 13 South African troops who died in the CAR must have felt, if they had been listening to Mapisa-Nqakula’s defensive and evasive utterances. Horrified? Probably. Angry? Beyond.
When the parliamentary joint standing committee on defence met on Thursday to be briefed by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on the matter of South African troops in the CAR, the committee had reason to believe that there were high levels of public interest in the meeting. One reason for believing this would have been the public outrage expressed over the last week about the deaths of South African soldiers in a country that many people didn’t know we had any involvement in at all. Another reason for believing this would have been the fact that suspicious questions have been asked from a wide range of quarters as to whether South Africa’s presence in the CAR had some ulterior motive.
But possibly the best reason that the committee would have to believe that there was a lot of public interest in the meeting was that the venue had to be changed a few hours in advance in order to allow eNCA to broadcast the briefing live. You know, so that a lot of people around the country could watch it play out in real-time: usually a reasonable indication that a matter is presumed to be of some importance.
Mapisa-Nqakula also paid lip service to an awareness of the responsibilities faced by the committee and her department. “Let me assure all our people that, for us, as a democratic government, it is absolutely essential that every South African should be allowed the space to demand accountability; and that government should provide answers that ensure such accountability,” she said.
There was, however, little sign given from either committee chair Jerome Maake or the ANC MPs present that their meeting was under scrutiny by a country hungry for answers. Despite the pleas of opposition MPs, Maake closed proceedings after exactly three hours, having come under pressure to do so from ANC MPs impatient to leave because they had planes to catch. During the meeting, it seemed that the MPs had used their Easter holidays to get some filibustering lessons from the Republican Party. Maake noted that he had never received so many “point of order” requests before, and once these procedural non-issues had been dealt with, there was precious little time left for the business of the day.
Mapisa-Nqakula gave a defiant performance, at times resorting to withering condescension to quell opposition. “There is something called roll-call,” she repeated several times in answer to a question about whether they were sure there were no other troops unaccounted for. “There is such a thing as national security,” she snapped, by way of explaining why she couldn’t discuss the reported movements of South African troops in Uganda.
The defence minister claims that the only reason 400 additional troops were sent to the CAR in January this year was that they knew things were getting sticky in the country, and they needed to protect the 26 troops who were already there, and their equipment. The extra troops were sent as a “protection force, I repeat protection force”, for the 26 South African soldiers who were engaged in training exercises.
“I am aware of reports in our media that when soldiers were interviewed they said that they had not undertaken training,” said Mapisa-Nqakula. “Training was not the mandate of that protection force.” They were there solely to protect the trainers, and the SANDF property which had been brought into the CAR since 2007: equipment, vehicles, “things we could not have withdrawn in a day”.
Mapisa-Nqakula said that when the original bilateral defence accord with the CAR expired, in December last year, South Africa thought long and hard about whether it should re-sign the memorandum of understanding. “There was a lot of debate,” she said, but after long negotiations, and persuasion from the CAR, South Africa “saw no reason not to renew”.
The soldiers were not in the CAR to defend ousted president Francois Bozize, Mapisa-Nqakula said. When the memorandum of understanding was first signed in 2007, she explained, one of the services the SANDF provided was the training of VIP protection units in the CAR – Operation Morero. However, Mapisa-Nqakula stated clearly that Operation Morero was stopped in 2008.
This statement, however, is in flat contradiction of a parliamentary reply given on 10 February 2011, which stated that: “SANDF deployment in the CAR is divided into two mainly [sic] OP MORERO – a unit of the SANDF Special Forces that was deployed in CAR to provide VIP protection to President Bozize and Operation Vimbesela.”
This contradiction was pointed out at least twice during questions by opposition MPs on Thursday, but a clear answer was never forthcoming. Later, she denied again that South African troops had helped Bozize flee, pointing out that VIP protection services of this kind would traditionally be provided by the police rather than the military.
Mapisa-Nqakula also hit out at media reporting on the conflict. She made reference to the picture published by TimesLive last Tuesday showing a group of rebels standing around a Toyota Landcruiser marked with the insignia of Operation Vimbezela, the South African military mission in the CAR. Obviously, if you’ve just said that the sole purpose behind the presence of hundreds of troops in the CAR was to protect said vehicles, that doesn’t reflect well. But Mapisa-Nqakula had an explanation: this vehicle, she said, had been donated to the CAR well before. (The question of why, in that case, its South African markings hadn’t been removed, was not addressed.)
The SANDF never expected to find itself under attack, the defence minister said. “Our soldiers…they had gone to assist with post-conflict recovery,” she said. “We never knew we could be a target. People will say that was very naïve. Maybe that was.” She also denied that the Seleka rebels thought of South African troops as “mercenaries”.
Yet as the Daily Maverick has pointed out before, as early as 7 January, French newspaper Le Monde quoted CAR rebel leader Eric Massi as referring sneeringly to the “South African mercenaries” perceived to be propping up Bozize.
Compounding the impression of naivety, Mapisa-Nqakula later said it had come as a surprise that the rebels were moving around with heavy-duty weaponry. “We had never heard of rebels who move around with mortars”, she said: another rather extraordinary statement, given that mortars seem practically de rigueur for any self-respecting rebels.
Mapisa-Nqakula described the retreat beaten by South African troops from the CAR as carried out with honour and grace, in a “dignified manner”, with President Jacob Zuma observing all due protocol in informing regional powers. This refusal to admit that anything had been done wrong, beyond the failure to anticipate a rebel attack, in fact characterised the defence minister’s entire testimony to the committee. The other strikingly tone-deaf aspect of her performance was her response to the question of whether SANDF troops killed child soldiers, as had been reported.
“If a child points a gun at you, are you going to give a sweet and blow kisses?” Mapisa-Nqakula asked. She said that a child with a gun ceases to be a child. Whatever you think of this response, it chafes against the widely-reported testimony of South African soldiers who told the Sunday Times, for instance, that: “We did not come here for this…to kill kids. It makes you sick. They were crying calling for help…calling for (their) moms”.
In response to a question about why South African troops were attacked rather than French, she said, “I need these answers too! South Africa needs these answers too!” Mapisa-Nqakula also hinted darkly – and obscurely – a few times at a disturbing trend whereby, she suggested, instability in African countries might be being fomented by external forces. It wasn’t clear exactly what she had in mind.
DA shadow defence minister David Maynier attracted the ire of Maake and the ANC MPs present when he began a question by stating that the public outrage on the matter was due not just to the deaths of the 13 troops, but because the government had lied to the people of South Africa about the deployment of troops. This bald statement was deemed so out of order that it almost shut down proceedings altogether but, to her credit, Mapisa-Nqakula insisted that Maynier be given a chance to make his case, saying that she had nothing to hide.
Maynier said that it was an “incontrovertible fact” that Zuma has misled Parliament over the deployment of troops to the CAR, both in terms of the expense of the mission and its purpose. (It was Maynier who wrung a clarification out of Zuma in January that the cost of the mission would be higher than was first understood). But his point was shot down by ANC acting deputy chief whip Mmamoloko Kubayi, who seemed at various points to be running the show from the sidelines. She reminded Maynier that the provisions of the Defence Act allowed the opposition seven days to protest against the deployment of troops.
Maynier’s suggestion that Zuma had also not met his constitutional obligations to inform Parliament about the movement of troops in Uganda and the DRC was similarly waved away by Maake as 15:00 approached. Maynier was warned by Maake that he could face further penalties for his assertion that the government had misled the public.
It was by any reckoning a deeply unsatisfying hearing, leaving countless burning questions unanswered: Maynier noted that he had arrived with 35 questions prepared, and only been able to ask five. The defence minister is due to address the National Assembly later this month, but there seems little point in holding your breath for major revelations there. For now, it will likely fall to a sceptical media to fact-check Mapisa-Nqakula’s claims about the mission which cost 13 South Africans their lives.
Written by: Rebecca Davis
Picture credit: Daily Maverick
- Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published by Daily Maverick.