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What Were the South African Military Doing in the Central African Republic?

At least 13 soldiers were killed – did they die for private oil?

A rebel in the Central African Republic. Photo via.

African politics is a weird mixture of ancient tribal mentalities and democratic ideals imported from the West. It's proven to be a pretty volatile combination on the continent and one that spurs much of its political strife. One country that's had to deal with the consequences of that unique approach to governance recently is the landlocked Central African Republic (CAR), home to a violent upheaval that's been ongoing since late last year.


In January 2013, South Africa's ruling ANC party sent 400 troops to the CAR. Ostensibly, they were there to help the country's President, Francois Bozizé, fight Séléka, the coalition of rebel groups revolting against Bozizé and his government (they allege that Bozizé isn't honouring peace agreements made after the 2004-2007 Central African Republic Bush War). The thing is, the Central African Republic had been suspended from the African Union because of the uprising, which – in theory – should have disqualified them from receiving external military aid.

There is much speculation over why South African President Jacob Zuma deployed his forces to support the CAR's clearly failing and dictatorial government. The theory picking up the most steam is that both the ANC and a number of its individual members have private mineral and natural resource interests in the CAR that they wish to protect. There are many South African companies exploiting the oil the CAR has to offer, with most of them linked to powerful political figures in South Africa and arguably fuelling the coffers that drive the ANC's political machine.

One such company is DIG Oil, a company prospecting in the southeast of the CAR. Zuma's nephew sits on the board of DIG Oil – something that suggests Zuma might have more than a passing business interest in the company. It also suggests – if you're a fan of linking pretty blatant points – that Zuma may well be using the South African military as a private security service to protect his and his cronies' international business interests.


Footage from the Central African Republic.

South Africa's dubious involvement was highlighted when, on the 23rd of March, the Séléka rebels marched on the capital, Bangui, and seized control, killing at least 13 South African soldiers in the process. It was a one-sided massacre, with South African forces caught in a battle with few supplies, fewer numbers and little to no intelligence. After reports emerged that the CAR government had never formally requested to have South African troops deployed to help them out, people – namely the ANC's domestic political opposition, the DA – have started to push for Zuma's reasoning.

The South African presidency claimed that the troops were sent in order to “assist with the capacity building of the CAR defence force and would assist the CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration processes".

Which, if you untangle it, suggests that the official line is that the troops were there to help train the CAR army. But that begs the question: What were they fighting for if they were only there to train? Public outcry, both from South Africa and abroad, forced Zuma to withdraw his troops from the region, but that hasn't stopped the questions from rolling in.

At a memorial service for the soldiers, Zuma swatted any allegations of wrongdoing aside, saying, "The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country. Government must be given the space to do its work of running the country to implement the policies of the ruling party that was voted into office by millions of our people. There must also be an appreciation that military matters and decisions are not matters that are discussed in public, other than to share broader policy… Those who are engaging in this game should be careful not to endanger both the national interest and the security of the republic."


A child soldier in the Central African Republic. Photo via.

This dismissive attitude hasn't sat well with the press, who have spent two years fighting the Protection of Information Bill – which allows the government to jail journalists for up to 25 years if they publish something they don't want published. And the opposition is trying to discredit the ANC, which isn't a particularly hard job at the moment.

Parliament has called for an ad-hoc committee to gain answers to questions raised by the DA’s Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, David Maynier. Those questions being: Did the president intentionally mislead parliament to the role of the troops in the CAR? Why were the troops deployed based on an understanding between South Africa and the CAR rather than a mandate from the United Nations or the African Union? And why was there so little support for the troops that had been deployed?

Questions are also being raised about the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF) ability to act as peacekeepers on the African continent. Many SANDF troops aren't sufficiently trained, and budget constraints allow for only one brigade of 3,000 soldiers to be deployed at any given time, over half of whom are medically unfit to serve, chronically ill or too old to be effective in a conflict scenario. So yeah, not ideal for a continent with a population of approximately 1 billion, and a problem that the South African troops in the CAR faced before they even left their home country.


As for the CAR, well, the streets of Bangui are now stained in blood. Riots, looting, child soldiers and rape are all daily occurrences and the prolonged fighting has delayed the planting of crops for the rainy season, so there are expected food shortages on the horizon in a country that ranks among the poorest in the world. It's not looking good, basically. And it looks unlikely that Zuma – even with the help of his private security firm, the SANDF – will have much say over what happens to his assets in the Central African Republic.

More fighting in central Africa:

I Met a Top Dog from Congo's Rampant M23 Rebels

The M23 Advance Through the Congo as Innocents Run for Their Lives 

Sleeping Through the Slaughter