South Africa’s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on April 4 announced that all South African troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) will be withdrawn because there is now no constitutional government in that country. She also said that at an extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Chad, other African leaders were “almost pleading” with South Africa not to pull out. The international relations minister said the decision to withdraw was made solely by the South African government.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) welcomed the withdrawal from CAR, but demanded that the president immediately inform Parliament about any new deployments of South African troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda that are somehow linked with CAR. Recalling apartheid-era South African thuggery outside its borders, the DA press release said “the president is making a big mistake if he thinks the defense force can be deployed B.J. Vorster-style in secret without informing the public and Parliament.”
Meanwhile, General Arda Hakouma, the self-proclaimed chief of staff, and commander of the rebel force that took Bangui, claimed there were thirty-six South African dead, not the thirteen acknowledged by the South African government. Another source claimed the body count was closer to fifty. Hakouma also claimed they took South African prisoners who were later turned over to the Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC). The Zuma administration’s lack of transparency throughout the CAR episode feeds the sense that it is not telling the whole truth.
Public anger over the Zuma administration’s deployment of troops is not going away in South Africa. Appearing to reflect widespread civil society views, the South African Civil Society Information Service published April 3 a piece by Glenn Ashton. In it Ashton observes that the Zuma administration’s arguments about deployment in CAR are “unconvincing and inadequate.” He characterizes the South African deployment as “neo-colonial,” in that it was designed to protect the economic interests of South Africans connected with the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party: “Research has revealed that ANC heavyweight insiders like Billy Masetiha, Joshua Nxumalo, and Paul Langa were or are involved in various business interests in CAR. These interests are further linked to the ANC through the increasingly notorious Chancellor House Trust (the ANC’s in-house investment arm), perceived to be involved in crony capitalism as well as being a key funder of the ruling party.” He concludes that the CAR intervention “…indicates a dangerous shift by South Africa towards supporting illegitimate regimes in order to protect economic interests with strong links to powerful (South African) domestic political networks. The presence may have been legal, but was it morally defensible?”
Having backed down and withdrawn the troops from CAR, Zuma will survive the outrage. The CAR episode will not resonate much with his Zulu, township, and much of the ANC base. But this misadventure betrays the ideals of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and other architects of the “rainbow nation;” and further erodes the ANC’s moral credibility. Post-apartheid South Africa was supposed to be different, a beacon for the rest of the world.