CAR soldier unveils the truth

JOHANNESBURG – Months after the deadly Central African Republic battle that killed 15 SANDF soldiers,  a soldier deployed in the region has called their deployment an ill-planned operation.

It has been four months since the March 23 devastation and there are still no answers as to how a decision was made to deploy 200 South African troops who clashed with 3000 Seleka rebels in Bangui.

Apart from being notified of their deployment two days before departure, information from Colonel Renier Coetzee that troops did not have sufficient bulletproof protection has inflamed a sensitive matter.

Last week, Coetzee revealed that some of the soldiers were not wearing sufficient protection in the March 23 attack.

The senior South African Special Forces officer said the soldiers who wore their bulletproof vests correctly withstood several bullets and survived the ordeal.

"Some took out the bulletproofing plates, while others just wore breast plates. This left their backs unprotected," said Coetzee.

In response to Coetzee’s statement, the SANDF has distanced itself from the officer and said he “misinformed the public.”

In a statement released on Wednesday, the military entity said: “The SANDF distances itself from the comments made by the SANDF member. The member did not speak on behalf of the SANDF nor was he assigned by the SANDF to present the paper.”

However, more details on the operational shortfalls of the South African National Defence Force have emerged and cast further doubt on the government’s evasiveness regarding details of the Bangui attack.

A soldier speaking on condition of anonymity said: “There was not enough ammunition and some of the soldiers weren’t wearing the bulletproof vests properly because there wasn’t enough for all of us.”

According to another soldier based in Durban, soldiers usually go through training over some weeks or months, following which a selection process for deployment follows.

This was not the case with the CAR, as soldiers were notified of their deployment two days before departure. Normally soldiers are notified a week before in cases of emergency.

This recent information is uncovering the veil of secrecy imposed by defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

Nqakula admitted the government’s shortfalls in the CAR operation to the Parliamentary standing committee on defence saying “we never deployed to the CAR to wage a battle.”

“We were not equipped in a way that would be able to repel that kind of battle,” she added.

A SANDF lieutenant-major who was deployed in Sudan and Burundi said it was against the law to engage in a battle without full armor.

“In a battle it is obviously never advised to not be fully armed, you are exposed and vulnerable when you don’t protect your head and body in the battlefield,” she said.

“The only time you don’t wear breastplates is if you’re doing a presentation."

However, the state has denied any wrongdoing despite Mapisa-Nqakula’s confession.

Defence ministry spokesperson Sonwabo Mbananga said the ministers’ statements were misunderstood.

“The minister said that in terms of what happened in CAR as a result of not getting necessary hardware. She never said they were ill-prepared when they went there.”

Mbanaga was quick to add: “They were not there to engage…they were there to give training to soldiers of CAR as agreed in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.”

David Maynier, Democratic Alliance shadow minister of defence said: “I am concerned that the minister is covering up the truth about what happened in CAR.”

“She claims the reason for not giving the information is because there is a board of inquiry into the operation but the fact is there is not board of inquiry.”

“The soldiers not wearing proper protection is just the tip of the iceberg in what was a military disaster,” said Maynier.

Instead, they have maintained that soldiers were deployed in accordance with a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and CAR.