PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma will seek to defuse a growing storm over South Africa’s ill-fated Central African Republic (CAR) mission in talks with regional leaders in Chad on Wednesday, after fighting back against domestic critics at Tuesday’s memorial service for 13 slain South African paratroopers.
Mr Zuma is to attend a special summit of the Economic Community of Central African States. "We are going there to participate in a meeting of African states. The focus is on developments in the CAR," presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said on Tuesday.
The summit in N’Djamena will be chaired by Chadian President Idriss Déby and the presidents of Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are expected. However, the CAR has been suspended by the African Union (AU) and the country’s new military leader, Michel Djotodia, has not been invited.
Analysts said Mr Zuma will need to explain to the summit why South Africa failed to enlist the regional group’s support before sending paratroopers to Bangui, the CAR’s capital, in early January.
"I think he has to make it clear why he went in bilaterally," said Institute of Security Studies senior researcher David Zounmenou.
The summit will be an opportunity to assess how much of a setback the CAR debacle has been for South Africa’s diplomatic, economic and increasingly military push for leadership in Africa. Those ambitions were advanced last week at the Durban summit of the Brics group, which groups South Africa with global heavyweights Brazil, China, India and Russia.
A possible outcome of today’s very different summit would be to agree to deploy a new force in the CAR with the support of the AU, replacing the ineffectual regional force already there and perhaps including a new South African contingent, diplomats said.
They said AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or one of her deputies was expected to take part.
Who would pay for such a force and how Mr Djotodia would react to the idea remain unanswered questions.
As Mr Zuma moves belatedly to build political bridges in the region, he faces a growing storm at home about the circumstances surrounding the deployment of the paratroopers. Their precise mission and the inadequate means they had to defend themselves against advancing Seleka rebels have shot to the top of South Africa’s political agenda since March 23, when they were ambushed. Thirteen of the soldiers were killed and 27 wounded.
The rebels took power the next day as then president Francois Bozize fled into exile.
The Democratic Alliance urged that Parliament be recalled from its Easter recess over the CAR issue but the African National Congress (ANC) on Tuesday rejected this. Instead, it said that Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula would address Parliament on the soldiers’ deaths at its next sitting, which would be on April 23.
The ANC has denied having any commercial interests in mines in the CAR that could have motivated the government’s involvement in the country.
Mr Zuma went on the offensive in a hard-hitting speech at yesterday’s memorial service at Swartkop air force base in Centurion.
"Matters of military tactics and strategy are not the ones to be discussed in public.… No country reveals and discusses its military strategies in the manner that South Africa is being expected to do," he said, adding that there was a "deliberate attempt to cast doubt and distort the purpose of Operation Vimbezela".
"The problem with South Africa is that everybody wants to govern," Mr Zuma said, recalling that South Africa signed a bilateral defence agreement with the CAR in 2007. A memorandum of understanding led to South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel being sent to train the army, VIP protection units, and to renovate barracks and bases.
Mr Zuma said that in the rapidly deteriorating security situation late last year, his government decided to deploy 200 more soldiers to the CAR to protect the SANDF instructors and their military assets. "These additional soldiers were not trainers. They were not deployed to train but as a protection force for the trainers," he said yesterday.
This corresponded with a statement by the Department of Defence on January 6, but appeared to be at odds with a statement by the Presidency, also on January 6, which said the extra troops would "assist with capacity building of the CAR Defence Force and will also assist the CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration processes".