From Pretoria to Bangui: South Africa’s security game in Africa

On January 21st 2016, treatment started  the 26th meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, sale Ethiopia. Idriss Déby, president of Chad and new chairperson of the African Union, urged Africans to stop being passive observers of external solutions, and unify their strengths in order to overcome security issues. Indeed, in the military field, non-African forces such as the United States, Great Britain, or France, often meddle in African affairs. Though their interventions can be necessary they come with multiple setbacks – lack of legitimacy, accusation of neo-colonialism, absence of exit strategies – which hamper the operation’s effectiveness. Experts and politicians defend the idea of a more integrated Africa, especially in the security field as conflicts easily spread in regions where there are porous borders and fragile states. Regional organisations or ad-hoc structures (G5 Sahel) already exist ; but some countries take initiatives on their own to foster African security cooperation such as South Africa in the Central African Republic in 2013.

South African paratroopers during a training session

South African paratroopers during a training session

On February 2007, South Africa signed a first agreement with the Central African Republic (CAR), which was renewed in December 2012. It stated that South African National Defence Forces (SANDF) will contribute to train CAR’s army, infantry, artillery and special operations forces (SOF) and help renovate their military infrastructures in Bouar and Bangui. In early January 2013, South African President Jacob Zuma officially sent 250 paratroopers and SOF personnel to CAR. Between March 22 and 24 2013, these troops, carried out an operation against the Seleka rebellion which lead to the loss of 13 South African soldiers, 27 injured and around 40 prisoners. Though they fought bravely, various factors explain the failure of this infamous intervention and show the potential liabilities for inter-African cooperation.

Brevet parachutiste sud-africain

South African paratrooper badge

 The South African army, ambitious but overstreched

South Africa’s intervention in the Central African Republic in 2013 was surprising and controversial. Zuma sent the troops on a bilateral basis without a United Nations mandate, and against the advice of his military command and minister of Defense.

SANDF troops in CAR were poorly prepared and thus underestimated their enemy and need of military support. They did not expect such numerous enemy (between 1 000 and 3 000 Seleka fighters). They were also better armed than expected with large-calibre machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades.” Lastly they could be younger than 16 years old, which – on moral grounds – made the reprisal more difficult for the SANDF. More practically, the SANDF also complained about the lack of air support, supplies, ammunitions and medical services. This can be explained by the army’s overstretching deployments over the continent in 2013. Since April 2012, a thousand South African soldiers were already sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be part of the MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), as well as 800 more in Darfur for the MINUAD (Nations – African Union Mission in Darfur). Though they withdraw from Central Africa in April 2013, the SANDF extended their presence DRC and Darfur until April 2014, which shows the army’s ambition despite its material and financial limitations.

According to The Military Balance 2014, “the SANDF remains on paper the most capable force in the region, despite financial and structural problems”. Indeed in 2013, it was limited by a budget of 4,85 billion dollars – i.e. 1,3% of the GDP. [1]

 South Africa’s strategic and ulterior motives

While deployed in CAR, SANDF had to follow . They were told to train the CAR soldiers, protect the civilians in Bangui and assist with the implementation of disarmament, demobilisation and re integration of the rebels on the long term.

Yet, as said earlier, South African forces and equipment appeared limited for such objectives. Zuma seemed less willing to end the rebellion, than to simply protect Bozizé or protect  South Africa’s personal interests. Analysts disagree on whether or not the country intervened for economic motives. Though South Africa only accounts for 0.2% of CAR’s total trade, a South African daily published an investigation in march 2013 revealing the ANC’s desire to dominate the CAR’s diamong-mining industry and to establish a military mission in Bangui in 2007.

From a political perspective, it seemed more likely South Africa was intervening for ulterior motives. According to experts, the country was trying to assert its image as a regional power and limit France’s  influence in its previous colonies. This also shows South Africa’s pan africanist foreign policy. In 1994, Nelson Mandela already declared “If we South Africans do not concentrate our efforts on this continent, we shall ourselves become the same victims of the forces that have destroyed it, polarized it and split it apart”. There is an inextricable link between the country’s and continent’s future which explains the SANDF’s ambitious goals at a regional level (fight terrorism, respond to piracy, promote peace and security across the continent).


South Africa’s intervention in CAR showed the discrepancy between the country’s military means and ambitions. First economic and military strength of southern Africa, it soon played the role of a regional policemen by taking an active part in different peace operations. After CAR’s intervention, public opinion – confused and shocked by the death of 13 South African soldiers – questionned this pan Africanist foreign policy. Doubts rose regarding the importance of the African agenda and South Africa’s legitimacy to carry out peace operations.

On a broader perspective, it can also question the principle “African solutions to African problems”. Like western interventions, this operation was criticized for its lack of legitimacy and dubious motives. Moreover, questions remain about the ability of certain african armies to handle national security issues with limited training and equipment. Today’s conflicts are complex, with regional and international implications. Solely relying on African forces to foster security in Africa might lead to unintended results. “African solutions” should thus be understood as a combination  between regional and international forces, in order to adress effectively the multiple causes and consequences of conflicts.

[1] The military balance 2014: the annual assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of over 171 countries, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Capabilities : Active 62,100 (Army 37,150 Navy 6,250 Air 10,650, South African Military Health Service 8,050) Reserve 15,050 (Army 12,250 Navy 850 Air 850 South African Military Health Service 1,100)

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