JOHANNESBURG – The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is preparing to send more than 1,000 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as part of a bid to stop the M23 rebel group from gaining more power there, it was reported at the weekend.
Coming after the deaths of 13 soldiers in the Central African Republic, this raises questions about whether President Jacob Zuma is becoming more assertive on the continent, and why. It could also raise questions about what possible fallout there could be as a result of this, considering the public anger and strong criticism of the Central African Republic deployment.
While Mr Zuma has previously deployed soldiers as part of peacekeeping missions to the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it does now appear he is becoming more assertive, in that the number of soldiers deployed is increasing. At the same time, while earlier deployments were always at the behest of multilateral bodies such as the African Union, the Central African Republic deployment was a unilateral step, an indication perhaps that on some points, Mr Zuma is prepared to go it alone on the continent.
Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni suggests this assertiveness could be linked to a desire to live up to the memory of Mr Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. He points out that “the previous president was always known as strong on foreign policy, Mr Zuma is under pressure to demonstrate he is as competent”. The fact that Mr Mbeki is still highly regarded internationally as a result of this work, despite his perceived failings domestically, could be a further impetus to Mr Zuma to flex muscle on the international stage.
Prof Fikeni also says recent events have played a part, noting “our inclusion (among) the Brics countries, and the recent election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as commission chair of the AU”. Mr Zuma “would not want to yield the space of being a leader on the continent”.
Critics of Mr Zuma specifically, and the ANC more generally, may also point to claims that certain deals are being done with politically connected businesspeople, such as his nephew Khulubuse Zuma, which may provide part of the impetus for this. The fact these deployments are occurring in areas where there appear to be opportunities to exploit mineral wealth may strengthen this view.
But the ANC and Mr Zuma have always strongly denied these claims, and could point to the fact, the Central African Republic deployment excepted, that there has always been a multilateral element to the deployments.
This new Congo deployment may also have its roots in the perception that South Africa must not look like it failed in the Central African Republic, and that it is important to bolster the impression, in the minds of some, that the country is not scared to send in its troops, despite its losses.
For research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs Tom Wheeler, that South Africa wants a seat in the United Nations Security Council adds impetus to the need to appear to be prepared to put our soldiers where our international foreign policy is.
While admitting there is a domestic political risk, as Mr Zuma is likely to be blamed if any more soldiers are killed, Mr Wheeler says this new Congo deployment is in keeping with our previous foreign policy actions. He points out that “South Africa wants to play a role in the world, without appearing to be hegemonic, and looking like we’re throwing our weight around, partly because that’s what the apartheid government did”.
However, it may now be appropriate for Mr Zuma to communicate better the aims of any new deployments, to ensure that if there are any casualties, he does not have to take the flak that would come his way. – Business Day