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President Cyril Ramaphosa has been deeply unfair to the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and the new ministerial team by replacing the political head of the department in the middle of an extremely difficult situation.

Quite apart from the immense difficulties caused by two decades of underfunding and overstretch, the defence force must extricate itself from the failed Southern African Development Community (Sadc) mission in Mozambique and address the dangerous situation faced by the SA contingent of the ill-considered Sadc mission in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In the middle of dealing with those challenges, the chief of the defence force and his top officers must now find the time to educate and brief the new ministerial team, two of whom know nothing about defence. At least new deputy defence minister Gen Bantu Holomisa will be in a position to grasp the difficulties, but even he will first have to be fully briefed. This will distract the senior commanders when they can little afford distraction. 

For her part, the new minister, Angie Motshekga, will be expected to advise the president on the DRC situation despite coming in cold. She would be well advised herself to delegate this responsibility to the chief of the defence force or simply take his recommendation to the president, perhaps supported by Holomisa.

For the new minister to try to give advice or take decisions at this stage would be a big mistake. This is no reflection on her as an individual, but these matters are complex and lives are at stake. It will take time for her to be able to speak with any authority. 

It would have been better to have left Thandi Modise in office at least until serious decisions have been taken concerning the DRC. She could have been one of the two ministers who can be appointed from outside parliament. But the deed is now done, and the situation in the DRC demands an early decision on the way forward.

The chance of the Sadc mission as constituted achieving anything lasting in the DRC is zero. The force is far too small for the task and without air support lacks even minimum capability. Add the apparent lack of mortar-locating radars and counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) systems to protect its bases, and all the mission can look forward to is inconclusive clashes and casualties. That is no reflection on the troops. They will do their best as before, but there are real limits to what even the most competent soldiers can do in such a situation. 

To add perspective: North Kivu is one of three provinces facing a complex threat — a combination of local insurgency, foreign guerrillas seeking to attack the eastern neighbours, their efforts to counter them (M23 is an example) and multiple militias, political and criminal. The province covers about 59,000km2, with difficult, mountainous terrain, dense forests and few, mostly bad, roads. The population is about 8-million.

It is just conceivable that if the Sadc force could be strengthened and given air support and other equipment, it might prevail against M23, as the SANDF contingent of Monusco did in 2013.

The somewhat smaller Liberia — 43,000km2 and 5-million people — required a force of 15,000 to stabilise against unsophisticated and lightly armed guerrillas little better than bandits. But the Sadc expects a force of just 5,000 to be successful against the far more dangerous M23, even though it believes the guerrillas to be supported by the competent Rwandan army, which has supplied it with effective weaponry, including guided mortar bombs, drones and surface-to-air missiles. That is simply asking too much, even before one considers the other armed groups in the province and the possibility of the Rwandan army becoming directly involved.

It is just conceivable that if the Sadc force could be strengthened and given air support and other equipment, it might prevail against M23, as the SANDF contingent of Monusco did in 2013.

But what then? Does it go over to hunt the other guerrillas and militias in North Kivu? Does it extend operations against guerrillas and militias in Ituri to the north (65,000km2, with a population of 4.4-million) or South Kivu (65,000km2, with a population of 7-million)? Or does it declare itself victorious and withdraw, leaving the entire mess to start up again? The latter is, of course, what the Sadc mission in Mozambique has done — claim success and pull out just as the insurgency is again flaring up and with the insurgents claiming to have chased the Sadc off.

None of the above is to argue that the principle of supporting the DRC is wrong. It would make perfect sense for the Sadc and SA, economically, politically and strategically, if there were adequate forces with all the necessary support to undertake a serious mission. That, however, is not the case. So, how do we get ourselves out of this mess? There are three possible courses of action, all of them bad: 

  • Muddle on, which will produce some tactical successes thanks to the troops, but will also result in casualties and will not achieve any worthwhile outcome, until we finally withdraw, mission not accomplished. 
  • Somehow strengthen the deployed forces and provide air support — reconnaissance, attack and mobility — and seek to repeat the 2013 success against M23, carefully ignoring all the other armed groups, and then withdraw. That would provide a reasonable basis to profess success. The other guerrillas and militias would, however, continue business as usual, and as before M23 would in due course re-emerge. But by then one hopes only after what in another context was once termed “a decent interval”.
  • Focus on force protection and withdraw as quickly as possible, perhaps informing Rwanda of that intention and asking them to not interfere. That would make SA look even weaker than we are, which could cost casualties in future, but would be better than a visible failure and withdrawal under pressure.

There is nothing pleasant about any of those courses of action, but we must choose one and the first is not one any rational government would entertain. Having extricated ourselves we would then need to consider what to do about the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado. Should it spread south, it would threaten Cahora Bassa or even the gas fields of southern Mozambique, both of which are important to our economy. 

Then the new minister and her team will need to spell out in the simplest words possible that the government is going to decide what role SA wants to play in future, and then fund armed forces that are fit for that role. As things are we are a “paper lion”, and that will not augur well in an era of renewed conflicts and major power competition in the region.

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst.

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