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There is honour in SA’s Bangui loss

The debacle involving elite South African forces in the Central African Republic, culminating in their hasty withdrawal this week, is a reminder that more often than not the military “solution” provides anything but resolution to a problem.

One does not have to delve back far to find that optimistically embarked upon campaigns often deliver endings that the warmongering politicians and generals did not expect. Think of the best militaries in the world, such as the United States, Britain and Russia, recently in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Even in engagements that have been officially designated as military triumphs, it is difficult to distinguish victor from vanquished when one factors in the future psychological, social, economic and political costs. Pyrrhic victories, almost every one. So let us not encourage any Pavlovian reflex automatically to cheer your country’s wars and battles.

President Jacob Zuma sees it differently, but given his shaky understanding of constitutional subtleties such as the right – nay, obligation – for civic involvement in the affairs of state, that’s not unexpected. At their memorial service, Zuma lambasted those who dared “dishonour the memory” of the South African soldiers killed in CAR by questioning whether South Africa in fact had a legal mandate to be there.

“The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country,” he grouched. Zuma is at least partly right, everyone does want to run the country. That is simply because he is so bad at it.

It is also true, though, that it is a bit late to start questioning the legal fine print to SA’s deployment of troops only when the body bags start coming home. Why did the critics, now so many and so vociferous, not raise their voices in August last year when Operation Vimbezela – a training programme launched in 2007 – was escalated due to a “deteriorating security situation”?

Only the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on defence, David Maynier, carped on about the implausible deployment of more “trainers” in the form of an elite combat regiment, in the middle of a civil war. The Third Estate just yawned, completely missing the plot, as too did most opposition parliamentarians and civil-society watchdogs.

It is not yet clear whether the CAR escalation was deliberately misleading and extra-parliamentary or just the Zuma administration’s habitual befuddlement, but the president’s position is not strengthened by contradictory government statements as to why it took place. The first version was that the additional deployment was part of “capacity building”; the later spin that they were there “to protect the trainers”. Expect soon to hear that the rebels had weapons of mass destruction that had to be neutralised.

There also has been an annoying whine to the public discourse about South Africa’s casualties, that 13 died and 27 were wounded “needlessly”.

If one accepts that warfare is generally futile, all soldiers can be said to die needlessly. But unless one is so naive as to want to disband all armies, one must accept that there is nothing needless about battle casualties. It is the potential price to be paid for being a soldier and it belittles their choice of serving as professional fighting men for pompous civilians to stand on the sidelines and weigh each casualty as to whether it was necessary or nugatory.

More should rather be said of the heroism displayed by 1 Parachute Battalion, however little traction the concept of patriotism has with fat-arsed commentators sitting at home, replete with could’ve-should’ve-would’ve post-match wisdom.

There is a compelling and authoritative account of the Bangui battle by Helmoet-Romer Heitman, correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, which appeared in the Sunday Independent. It is clear that the South African forces fought a disciplined, tactically sound engagement over many harrowing hours, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, and this despite being vastly outnumbered and running low on ammunition.

Contrary to the limply flapping wrists of many media pundits, those casualties were necessary for the bulk of the South African force to be able to regroup unscathed. These men did it for their comrades and their country, not for the lying, conniving politicians back home. So let us not confuse the issues.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.