Is South Africa ready to sustain huge losses in the DRC?

Silence Charumbira

Silence Charumbira

Published Mar 13, 2024


Silence Charumbira

The SANDF, which is part of the SADC mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffered its first casualties last month after the death of two soldiers and the injury of three others in a mortar bomb attack.

Commentators have said South Africa’s involvement in this peacekeeping exercise appears to be motivated by a desire to preserve the first family’s mining interests in the Goma area. Critics say the SANDF has never been in the DRC to protect the Congolese or fight rebel groups like M23.

Instead, the critics say, this is a nefarious operation in which SADC forces have been deployed to fight Congolese citizens. Others even go so far as to say the troops were sent to the DRC to protect mines “so that Cyril Ramaphosa and his cronies can plunder the minerals in the east of the country with ease”.

What is more, the SADC seems to be making the same mistake it did in a similar situation 11 years ago, when it hurriedly deployed troops to the DRC with no plan for a lasting solution. Back in 2013, the rebels were defeated and moved to other regions, but they returned three years ago. This is akin to treating the symptoms but ignoring the disease. It would be more prudent to resolve the grievances of the M23 rebels and start protecting the rights of the Congolese Tutsis, for whose sake the M23 rebels are fighting.

The SANDF has confirmed that a mortar bomb landed inside one of the South African contingent’s military bases on Wednesday. As a result of this indirect fire, the SANDF suffered two fatalities and three of its members sustained injuries. The SANDF mission is reportedly meant to assist the Congolese government to restore peace and security in the eastern part of the country.

While addressing the deployment, Congolese minister of foreign affairs Christophe Lutundula said: “The main objective of the SADC force is defeating the M23 rebellion.”

Prior to their deployment, the southern regional bloc had claimed it would work with the Congolese army to combat all negative armed groups in the eastern DRC. However, with the Congolese government’s help, the force’s primary mission has shifted to attacking only the M23 rebels.

That South Africa has suffered casualties this early in the mission is unfortunate, but the question whether Pretoria was ready to sustain such losses remains. Peacekeeping missions are crucial because they are the most practical way to stabilise any territory. But is South Africa’s involvement in the DRC sincere? The country’s leaders must account for the deployment of the SANDF forces to the eastern DRC and justify the country’s participation in the mission. That way, they may retain some credibility.

In 2013, the force intervention brigade from the SADC region – comprising troops from Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa – defeated the M23 rebels. The group then fled to Rwanda and Uganda, but resumed fighting in late 2021.

Thus, more than a decade ago the SADC defeated the rebel group, but it still came back. Just who are these rebels that the SADC forces are fighting, and why have they taken up arms again?

Who are the M23 rebels?

The M23 or “March 23 Movement” is a Congolese rebel group founded in 2012. The rebels have many grievances that have not been addressed by their government. One of them is the continued harassment, persecution and killing of Kinyarwanda-speaking communities, especially the Congolese Tutsis.

Unlike other militia, the M23 rebels are fighting their government because it has deprived their own people, the Congolese Tutsis, of their right to citizenship for decades.

To date, Congolese Tutsi and Rwandaphones are being killed, and this has reached the point of genocide. The only protection they get is from the M23 rebels.

The government in Kinshasa, as well as previous regimes, deliberately refused to recognise the rebels are legitimate Congolese citizens. Whenever there is a political crisis, Kinshasa claims these insurgents are Rwandans simply because they speak the same language as the people of Rwanda.

The M23 rebels are fighting an existential threat posed by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan genocidal militia formed by the remnants of the criminals who perpetrated the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda.

For nearly three decades, this Rwandan genocidal militia has spread its deadly genocide ideology in the region. As a result, Congolese government officials, army officers and ordinary citizens harass, kill and brand Congolese Tutsis as “foreigners”. This is another problem Africa as a whole must rid itself of.

This situation of insecurity in the eastern DRC has led to an influx of refugees. By February last year, the UN Refugee Agency reported more than 1 million Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers in countries bordering the DRC, with nearly half of them, 479 400, sheltered in Uganda. Another 87 500 are scattered in Burundi, while 80 000 have sought refuge in Tanzania and elsewhere.

Most of these refugees are Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese, and especially Tutsis. Some of them have spent more than 20 years in refugee camps and wish for nothing more than to return home and live peacefully in their home country.

The Congolese government has failed to solve any of these grievances, prompting the M23 rebels to take up an armed struggle.

Deployment of the SADC

However, Kinshasa has dismissed the claims of the rebels, branded them terrorists, and said they are being supported by Rwanda. This is an allegation Kigali has vehemently denied.

With dialogue being out of the question, the Congolese government has decided to fight the M23 rebels militarily, with the help of the SADC.

With the help of the Congolese national army, the SADC forces’ primary mission is fighting the M23 rebels, completely disregarding the other armed groups that exceed 260 in number operating in the eastern DRC and committing atrocities against civilians every day.

Fighting the M23 without addressing the root causes of their fight against their government is only escalating instability and violence. The deployment of South African forces shows that the SADC is not in the DRC looking for peace.

The M23 rebellion is a Congolese internal problem. The rebels have taken up arms to make sure their government listens to them and meets their demands. The SADC is thus fighting Congolese citizens, fuelling more violence.

The southern bloc should genuinely examine why the rebels have resumed fighting after all this time, and also seek to understand why the group is still willing to fight even after their defeat more than a decade ago.

It is important for the SADC to learn from past mistakes and ensure a comprehensive and lasting solution to the current situation. Simply deploying troops without addressing the underlying grievances and causes of the conflict will only lead to a temporary resolution.

To effectively address the issue, the SADC should focus on resolving the grievances of the M23 rebels. This could involve engaging in dialogue and negotiations to understand their concerns and finding a peaceful resolution to the problems. By addressing the root causes of the conflict, such as political marginalisation or ethnic tensions, the SADC could work towards a more sustainable solution.

Additionally, it is crucial to address the concerns of the Congolese Tutsis, for whose sake the M23 rebels are fighting. This could involve ensuring their rights and representation within the political system, promoting inclusivity, and addressing any discrimination or marginalisation they may face. By addressing these grievances, the SADC could help to create a more inclusive and stable environment in the region.

Ultimately, the focus should be on finding a lasting solution to the problem, rather than simply treating the symptoms of the conflict. By addressing the underlying causes of the tensions and resolving the various parties’ grievances, the SADC could contribute to long-term peace and stability in the region.

Silence Charumbira is a Lesotho-based journalist who has written extensively for various international publications, including The Guardian and CNN. He was a deputy editor of the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express newspapers in Lesotho. He can be reached on [email protected]. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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