Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula confirmed South Africa had deployed troops in countries neighbouring the Central African Republic.
But this was merely to support the withdrawal of SA National Defence Force troops from the troubled state, she told the Cape Town Press Club today.
She said after South Africa suffered 13 fatalities in a rebel attack near Bangui in March, it sent soldiers to the region while it weighed whether or not to evacuate.
These soldiers had been part of a 400-strong contingent approved to go to the CAR, but had remained in South Africa after fewer than 300 were sent.
“We had just been attacked in Bangui, we are now assessing the situation to determine whether we remain or evacuate, and of course as you do this assessment you need to position yourself such that in the event there is a need to evacuate, you can evacuate as quickly as possible – which is what we did.”
The deployment of troops to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the fatal Bangui attack sparked reports that South Africa was planning to pour more troops into the CAR for a counter-attack on rebel forces.
Mapisa-Nqakula said government never responded at the time because it found the claims “strange”.
Deploying troops to neighbouring states proved a sensible decision as it made for a “highly efficient” withdrawal from the CAR.
There have been reports in recent weeks that South Africa is likely to send troops back to the CAR after its neighbours agreed to send 2 000 troops to boost the regional peace-keeping force Fomac.
But Mapisa-Nqakula ruled out sending troops back to the CAR to restore stability to the country, unless it was part of a multilateral contingent.
“South Africa will not go to Bangui on its own. That measure is not on the table.”
She said South Africa assumed that if the African Union decided there was a need to send peacekeepers to the CAR, it would be asked to contribute ground troops.
“It is at that point that we will sit and consider whether we deploy or do not deploy.”
Bangui marked South Africa’s worst military losses since the end of apartheid, and the mission was heavily criticised. But the minister reiterated fears that instability in central Africa could worsen, and said South Africa had a duty to help restore calm in the region.
Asked about South Africa’s decision to increase its presence in the eastern DRC by 1000 troops, she said regrettably the Congolese military was not run in a manner that enabled it to neutralise rebel forces and militia in the eastern DRC.
“Any government that does not look after its soldiers is likely to run into problems... you will see the kind of situation that we see now in the eastern DRC.”
She said political accords became meaningless if the soldiers meant to enforce them were not paid on a regular basis.
“If you don’t have properly structured systems where your soldiers know [that at the] end of the month they can go to the bank and get a salary, you are going to run into problems,” she said.
“It is very unfortunate to have to say so, but these are some of the things that we are trying to assist the Democratic Republic of Congo to do.”
South Africa could not stand by and watch the DRC being overrun by “criminal elements”.
“We have a responsibility to assist, we have a responsibility I suppose to baby-sit them until [such] time [as] they have set up proper government structures in the same way we have done in our country,” she said.