Johannesburg – On Saturday, SA buried 12 of the 13 soldiers killed in battle with rebels in Central Africa. On Sunday, the country was preparing to send more than 1 000 troops to a perilous new war in the DRC.
“We don’t want to kill our brothers from South Africa,” was the thinly veiled threat by Congolese rebel leader Bertrand Bisimwa as the bruised SA National Defence Force (SANDF) prepares to do battle again.
This time, the front is the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the new enemy is Bisimwa and his M23 rebel group.
The SANDF is part of a multilateral regional force, which includes the armies of Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, and has the blessing of the UN Security Council.
Tons of weaponry were this week being flown in huge Russian cargo planes from Bloemfontein, Pretoria and Makhado airports to Entebbe in Uganda, close to the Congolese border, where South African forces are expected to be based.
Bisimwa and M23 have warned South Africa that they are in a different league to the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) who killed 13 South African soldiers.
“We say welcome (President Jacob) Zuma. M23 is not Seleka,” the group wrote on their official Twitter account on Thursday. On Friday, M23 tweeted: “If SA special Force attacks us; it will be catastrophic & apocalyptic.”
The rebel group accuses Zuma of sending South African troops to the DRC to protect his nephew Khulubuse’s oil interests.
Bisimwa spoke to City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport, from the DRC on Saturday . He said it would be a grave mistake for the SANDF to attack them.
“My message is we are fighting for peace and for good governance in our country. There is a letter I wrote to Parliament and the people of South Africa to ask them not to come and kill their brothers here because we are all fighting for good governance in Africa.
“We don’t want to kill our brothers from South Africa. We are asking them to support peace in Congo, not to come to fight,” said Bisimwa.
Asked how he would react if South African troops were to attack M23, he said: “We will defend ourselves and our positions.
But we will not attack them if they don’t attack us.
“We have time to negotiate in Kampala (negotiations started in January)?.?.?.?We understand the DRC will also be there.
“Our people in Congo don’t like war in their country, just like in South Africa.”
M23 are regarded as new-generation rebels and are active on social media platforms.
They are the region’s most feared group and, according to experts, have rocket launchers, 37mm anti-aircraft weapons and other “dangerous armoury”.
They top the list of rebel groups being targeted by the UN Security Council, which authorised an “intervention brigade” on 28 March to “neutralise” armed forces in the eastern DRC.
This was a dramatic change from the UN’s peace mandate in the past, which only allowed soldiers to shoot back when they were being shot at.
End of April
In expectation of South Africa’s deployment to the DRC, which could happen as soon as the end of April, masses of military equipment, including helicopters, were transported to Entebbe this week.
One defence source said “special forces” were taken to Uganda, but this was disputed by other reports.
A Congo expert with close ties to the rebel leaders told City Press that South Africa underestimated M23.
“If they (the South Africans) think they will go out into the hills and annihilate these guys, they’re fucking crazy.
“If an army goes in, which does not know the terrain or the politics, is overconfident and is itself not combat equipped for these kind of operations, they’re going to be kicked. If South African special forces could not keep Seleka at bay – not nearly as coherent a target as M23 – how are they going to defeat M23, which are in their own back yard?”
Doomed to fail
With the absence of a plan for what will happen after the attack, the mission is doomed to fail, “just like many similarly structured American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
Sultani Makenga, M23’s commander, is well-trained and has helped to overthrow two governments in the area – the Rwandan government in 1994 and the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, in the then Zaire, in 1996.
Defence analyst Helmut Heitman added: “What worries me is that M23 have some rocket launchers and they captured twin-barrel 37mm anti-aircraft weapons from the Congolese army. They have dangerous weapons.
But if we have a good commander, we will do a good job.
“We need to make sure we have good intelligence before we go somewhere. Our troops should be better armed and equipped. After that (CAR fight), no rebel troops will want to fight South Africa.”