Did Zuma fail Africa 101?

2013-04-07 10:01

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South Africa’s involvement in central Africa is a public relations disaster, writes Stephanie Wolters

I can almost hear the sniggering at this week’s Economic Community of Central African States (Eccas) heads of state summit in N’Djamena.

As Zuma walks into the room, I picture Chadian President Idriss Déby and his counterpart from the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, exchanging knowing looks and whispering: “Poor guy. He’s new to this, and now he’s having to deal with all the fallout from the deaths of 13 soldiers. Luckily we don’t have to answer to a probing opposition, parliamentary debates, a noisy and critical media and an electorate whose votes we can’t steal.”

Poor Zuma indeed – for these are heavy encumbrances when you are caught trying to pull off an unclear military mission in a distant and geopolitically irrelevant country, in which you might have some economic interests.

These are encumbrances none of Zuma’s peers at the N’Djamena summit have to bother with.

Sassou and Déby, the two main regional players in the recent central African debacle, have both come to power violently, and have subsequently made few efforts to democratise their countries.

Both men have played a double game in the region, backing armed groups hostile to members of Eccas.

Chad, in particular, has put its soldiers in harm’s way on many occasions in order to let Déby play the role of regional strongman.

Rarely has this led to domestic scrutiny or censorship, and certainly never on the scale seen over the last two weeks in South Africa.

On the basis of this alone, Zuma’s blunder in the Central African Republic (CAR) is a massive public relations disaster for him in the region, and in the wider African community.

It demonstrates that he cannot pull off what other regional despots can, because, unlike them, he is the leader of a country that has institutions, and citizens who demand accountability and transparency from government – never more so than when South African lives are at stake.

To put it bluntly, he has made himself and South Africa look foolish and has demonstrated that when it comes to trading state resources for influence and access to riches, he cannot compete with leaders who are used to treating their citizens with contempt.

To make matters worse, he paid this high price defending Bozize, a man who violently overthrew his predecessor, and who, even by the region’s low standards, was too incompetent, corrupt and insincere to keep even the support of his closest allies.

Chadian soldiers, who had been deployed as part of a regional peacekeeping body, and whose explicit mandate was to create a buffer zone between the Seleka rebels and the Central African Army stood aside and watched the Seleka rebels take town after town until they reached Bangui.

Bozize had already lost the support of key regional allies months ago, and his refusal to apply aspects of the January Libreville peace agreement – including the withdrawal of South African military forces whom the rebels considered mercenaries – was the last straw.

Here, too, Zuma was outdone by the Machiavellian actions of his central African counterparts, all of whom have known, at least since January, that Bozize must, and would, go.

By simply stepping aside, presumably on Déby’s orders, Chad has been able to maintain the reputation of its military while ingratiating itself with the rebels.

This saves Chad having to publicly recognise the new powers in Bangui, a misstep within the existing African peace and security architecture, where the AU’s policy of no tolerance for violent accession to power officially remains immutable.

But this stance has been blurred again this week with Eccas and the AU recommending not that Bozize be restored as president, but that a “transition” council or government be formed.

Judging by reports ahead of the summit that the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was deploying Gripen planes and combat helicopters to within striking distance of Bangui, South Africa may have thought it would be asked to assist Bozize to return.

Instead, Zuma announced all troops would be withdrawn, an announcement many felt he should have made the moment Seleka took control.

Is he disappointed the man who cost him so much now appears firmly out in the cold?

Suggestions that ANC business interests motivated the military escalation earlier this year have been widespread.

Having met some of South Africa’s dodgy fixers in Bangui in 2011, I have no doubt promises of access to lucrative resource deals played a major role in the SANDF deployment to the CAR.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with two countries that enjoy friendly relations forging close economic ties, provided the deals are made transparently and adhere to international standards.

But the fact that many of the companies alleged to be involved have links with the ruling party, coupled with high levels of corruption in the central African resource sector, means it’s unlikely the deals were above board.

I also got the feeling much less had come of South Africa’s investment than the government had hoped, and the deal benefited Bozize disproportionately.

The bottom line is South Africa’s role in the messy end of Bozize’s regime is not just a personal tragedy for those who lost loved ones, but also a significant bruising of South Africa’s diplomatic and military standing.

It comes on the eve of South Africa’s participation in the first UN mission to have an offensive mandate, when it was deployed to track rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fortunately that mission has transparent objectives and is being conducted with the support of the UN, the AU and the Southern African Development Community.

Even so, South African soldiers’ lives will be on the line there too.

» Wolters is a journalist and researcher specialising in African conflict zones

Songezo Zibi

"A decision to send an army to another country for any reason constitutes an enormous sacrifice because lives could be lost.

In a democracy, citizens contribute both fighting personnel and the finances for such a mission, and therefore need to be well informed of the reasons for which the decision has been taken.

This is so that they can reconcile themselves with all the possible consequences and stand united behind their military. In this case, it appears this fundamental principle has either been forgotten or ignored.

If there is any lesson from this, it is that strong support from citizens is entirely dependent upon openness from government from the earliest possible time, through the events until the end.

We must also hope that our politicians now understand that invoking patriotism alone is simply not enough.”

» Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group

Pikkie Greef

"The most important thing that also came out from Parliament from the minister (Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula) is that we didn’t have proper support.

Let’s leave aside the mandates.

If we are going to be there, with the equipment we went with, we need proper support, like planes to gather intelligence.

We didn’t have that.

In terms of transparency, hopefully in the future, we as a country will ask deeper questions, other than how much the deployment will cost.

If someone tells you they want to train an army and they put down 200 paratroopers, we must ask why.

The questions we asked were inadequate and as a country we slipped up."

» Greef is national secretary of the SA National Defence Union

Helmut Heitman

One of the lessons from the CAR is that South Africa’s military intelligence was bad and we should have known that by March the rebels would be well armed.

“The defence force went there with a competent officer, but it had no diplomat. He had to liaise with the government and the French, and still had to organise his defence,” Heitman said. “We need to make sure we have good intelligence before we go somewhere. Our troops should be better armed and equipped.”

Heitman said South Africa missed an opportunity in 2007 and should have brought in an ambassador and businesses to the CAR.

This would have meant bringing in more troops to protect those interests. He said it was good for South Africa to take action without the African Union and the UN as they take longer to act.

» Heitman is an independent defence analyst

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane

The minister has suggested that the South African government pulled troops out because there was no elected government.

The deployment to the CAR was supported by the African Union, the Economic Community of Central African States and the UN. She said negotiating power with unelected groups, such as rebels, brings about undemocratic governments in Africa.

She said the resolution of the CAR crisis would have to be home-grown and the transitional team would be decided by west Africans. She denied criticism that South African foreign policy lacked clarity, as was shown by our intervention in the Libyan and Ivory Coast crises.

“The mandate I have is to represent a very clear foreign policy that refuses to shy away when called upon to champion the African agenda,” she said.

» Nkoana-Mashabane is minister of international relations and cooperation

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