A big surprise about the Central African Republic’s (CAR) latest coup is that it brought under scrutiny the purpose of South African troops in the country. At the time of the coup in Bangui on March 24, 2013, there were two hundred South African soldiers in CAR. They fought against the rebels on behalf of President Francois Bozize, the CAR head of state who has been overthrown. The South Africans suffered thirteen killed—their memorial service took place today in South Africa. South African President Jacob Zuma spoke at the service where he, in effect, claimed a form of “executive privilege” concerning the deployment of the South Africa Defense Force (SADF).
According to at least one of the South African combatants, they killed child soldiers who were fighting for the rebels. Widely quoted in the South African and other media is a twenty-seven year old South African soldier:
“It was only after the firing stopped that we saw we had killed kids. We did not come here for this…to kill kids. It makes you sick. They were crying for help…calling for (their) mums.”
Why were the South Africans present? Whether they had a UN or AU mandate is unclear; the Zuma administration claims they did, its critics say they did not. The Zuma administration says they were in the CAR pursuant to a 2007 agreement between Bozize and Zuma that the South Africans would provide training for the CAR military. In response to a Parliamentary Question tabled in February 2011, the responsible minister said that the purpose of the deployment was also to provide personal protection for Bozize. That provision presumably was the justification for South African soldiers to fight for Bozize. However, the Mail and Guardian, a respected South African newspaper that regularly exposes scandals involving the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is reporting that the troops were in the CAR to protect ANC mining and other business interests. In turn, the ANC is threatening a libel suit against the newspaper.
Predictably, the episode is producing a firestorm of South African criticism of Zuma, including calls for his impeachment. The parliamentary opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), introduced a parliamentary motion to force the government to remove all South African troops from the CAR. Others are urging the South African government to denounce to the International Criminal Court the new CAR head of state and coup leader Michel Djotodia for using child soldiers.
The episode is a disaster for the Zuma administration. The death toll among the SADF in the CAR is the highest since the end of apartheid. South Africans from all walks of life are horrified by the killing of child soldiers by their own SADF.
The huge ANC majority in parliament precludes a Zuma impeachment vote. The DA’s motion to recall the South Africans from the CAR similarly is likely to be unsuccessful. The ANC is characterizing withdrawal as “misguided” and claiming that the DA motion fails to follow proper procedures. Nevertheless, the Zuma administration may remove the troops to quell the criticism.
Zuma has faced many crises in the past, ranging from accusations of rape, myriad episodes of personal financial corruption (some still in the courts), to alleged responsibility for police brutality against strikers at the Marikana platinum mine. He has weathered them all. And, while the South African media, much of which is white owned and viscerally critical of Zuma, is focused on the CAR, a competing story is Nelson Mandela’s hospitalization and his slow recovery. For many in South Africa, the ANC and Jacob Zuma are indelibly associated with the national hero and the destruction of apartheid. That trumps everything else.