SA Army annual exercise Seboka taking place at the Army Combat training centre at Lohatla in the Northern Cape
by Louis Oelofse and Kieran Burke
LOHATLA, NORTHERN CAPE - South African soldiers who fought rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic could soon be fighting another war.
Over the last month, nearly 1500 troops have been honing their skills on the dusty plains of the Army Combat training centre in the Northern Cape.
As part of the their training, they have been fighting an imaginary foe. This time there is no one shooting back. But it is all about to change.
In December, South Africa will launch the awkwardly named African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC).
The brainchild of President Jacob Zuma, the force will intervene in African crisis situations. It is supposed to be an interim measure until the African Union manages to establish the African Standby Force, first mooted in 2008.
Due to the lack of capacity, Africa had to turn to former colonial power France who came to the rescue when crisis hit Mali and more recently the Central African Republic (CAR).
Arguing that Africans should take responsibility for such interventions, Zuma convinced the African Union at last year&39;s summit in Equatorial Guinea to approve the ACIRC as a precursor to the African Standby Force.
The African leaders&39; tepid approval was followed by an even less enthusiastic contribution of troops and equipment for ACIRC.
This means South Africa and a small number of African partners will have to form the core of the force.
Not allowing himself to be deterred by this, Zuma, who is also the country&39;s commander-in-chief, ordered the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to provide soldiers and equipment as part of the force.
"Let me warn the enemies of peace across the African that the legitimate armed forces on the African continent will act as collective to quell any form of instability that threatens our people," Chief of Army, Lt. General Vusi Masondo said after reviewing his soldiers preparations in the Northern Cape.
It could be a very pricey undertaking with the training alone costing four-billion-rand, a cost the cash-strapped SANDF would not be able to carry.
"It was something that was not budgeted for. We have submitted a request to treasury for funding so we can make it real, we are hopefull we can get that funding," Masondo said.
Moreover ACIRC comes on top of the SANDF deployment of soldiers as part of the UN Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, border protection duties and other emergency operations such as this week’s evacuation of South African patients from Nigeria following the building collapse in that country.
"The SANDF is overstretched. At some point you have to start asking when this all will start taking a toll, both on personnel and equipment.
"It will take a toll if the SANDF can&39;t fulfil its commitment, as there are no others on the continent that will be able to undertake these types of operations,” said John Stupart, from the African Defence Review.
Yet the financial implications pale into comparison with the potential danger soldiers face.
Although there is an inherent risk joining the defence force, there has never been a more dangerous time since the SANDF formation in 1994, to be a soldier.
South Africans are now engaged in battle with rebels in the DRC as part of the UN Intervention Brigade, deployed in places like Sudan and even facing off with criminal elements at home ranging from car hijacking syndicates to poachers in the Kruger National Park and even with car theft syndicates.
ACIRC could be used to intervene in various countries and could ultimately wind up squaring off with Al-Qaeda offshoot Boko-Haram in Nigeria and even return to the Central African Republic, drawing troops into prolonged conflict.
Fifteen soldiers died in the Battle of Bangui the last time South-Africa tried to maintain order in CAR.