Giant With Clay Feet
Johannesburg – South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy, does not have the corresponding political and military clout to match its deep pockets.
The recent withdrawal of the South African military from the troubled Central African Republic (CAR), after suffering embarrassing losses to rebel troops and failing to get the support of the self-imposed government is just the latest example of the country’s stunted efforts to project power outside its own borders.
South Africa was in CAR to provide “technical support” to that country’s army and ended up clashing with the rebels that swept Francois Bozize into office. The result was 13 dead South Africans.
While the number of casualties may not be considered “high”, the biggest loss has been to South Africa’s standing as a power on the continent.
The image of an African power has suffered repeated and regular knocks since 1994, starting with the ill-fated attempt to impose order in Lesotho following the 1998 post-election violence in South Africa’s small neighbour.
The mission was doomed from the onset as South Africa sent under-strength units with unreliable intelligence briefings after under-estimating the level of resistance they would face from Basotho who viewed them as an invading force.
Subsequent attempts at projecting power on various security and political matters such as the DRC, Libya and Cote d’Ivoire have not done much to enhance South Africa’s image abroad, leading some analysts to call that country’s military a “paper tiger”, while others refer to it as “a giant with clay feet”.
The Mail & Guardian newspaper screamed “Humiliation!” as CAR – according to the story – gave South Africa its marching orders to leave the country.
Geoffrey York of the Globe and Mail said South Africa had suffered “its worst combat losses since apartheid” and reckoned that the CAR pullout was embarrassing.
Glenn Ashton of the South African Civil Society Information Service added: “While other military forces have intervened in Africa, these have generally been supported by multilateral or UN mandates …
“However the unilateral presence of SANDF (South Africa National Defence Forces) troops to either protect South African economic interests or to project questionable South African power should be avoided.”
He went on to say, “It is of further concern that South Africa, with its erstwhile moral cachet, has so badly abused its self-appointed role as a regional superpower.
“This is especially so given its inability to decisively project this power militarily. While South Africa has leveraged its powerful economy throughout the region, projecting itself as an economic gateway into Africa, it lacks the military logistical reach and clout to underpin its bold economic projection.”
Ashton charges that “South Africa is increasingly perceived not as much as a regional heavyweight but as a comprador for Western interests” adding that “(i)ts political and commercial aspirations lack sensitivity to local conditions”.
“The CAR fiasco is likely to exacerbate these perceptions and possibly build resentment against South African economic expansionism, let alone misguided attempts of further military intervention. South Africa would be foolish to further diminish its reputation by not summarily withdrawing from the CAR.”
A would-be power
The Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland, offers a rather compelling portrayal of the would-be African power.
In an October 2011 paper entitled “South Africa: A Hamstrung Regional Power”, analysts say, “On paper, South Africa meets all the criteria for taking on a regional hegemonial role in Southern Africa: economic power, political weight, military might, and moral authority. But because of an erratic foreign policy and a lack of regional acceptance, Pretoria is experiencing significant difficulties in playing the regional leadership role that the countries of the West expect of it and to which its own elites aspire.
“This contrasts with South Africa’s self-confident demeanour on the global stage.”
The centre situates Pretoria as “one of the most powerful armed forces in all of Africa”, with the South African National Defence Force having 62 000 active troops and a budget of US$4.15 billion (1.15 percent of GDP in 2010).
South Africa is the only African nation to command substantial airlift capacities and should thus be able to deploy with relative ease. The Zurich-based analysts postulate that only Nigeria and Angola come close to matching South Africa’s military capabilities in Africa south of the Sahara.
But there is a catch.
“One reason why South Africa has so far failed to actualise its potential in terms of regional and global influence more successfully is an erratic foreign policy beset with tensions…
“On the one hand, this is due to the limited acceptance of South Africa’s leadership claim in the region, and on the other hand, it is the result of Pretoria’s own ambivalent stance towards such a role.
“There is a deep mistrust towards South African dominance in the region for historical reasons. The economic, diplomatic, and military pressure that Pretoria exerted on the neighbouring states during the apartheid period is not forgotten.
“What was then a policy of containment is translated under the current conditions into efforts to confine any hegemonial ambitions South Africa may have.
“Accordingly, the … African countries in question, especially the competitors for regional influence – Nigeria, Angola, and Zimbabwe – are rather thin-skinned when Pretoria displays high-handed behaviour and assertions of political and economic leadership.”
Some of the key observations of the paper include that South Africa’s global positioning, for all its attempts to global leadership, “lags far behind other emerging powers especially in terms of economic performance”, and that “South Africa is finding it difficult to meet global and especially Western ex pectations of its regional leadership role on the one hand without violating either regional sensitivities or the maxim of Afri can or South-South solidarity on the other”.
Expectation vs Reality
Jakkie Cilliers, the executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa last year said, “The international community expects more from South Africa, but South Africa is not deploying the amounts of troops and equipment expected of them.
“It all goes back to an overstretched Department (of Defence), lack of funding, transformation ‑ which bedevils discipline ‑ and operational capacity.”
One analysis is that South Africa’s failings stem from the kind of military it inherited at Independence in 1994.
The new military brought together ANC and other liberation movement fighters, apartheid forces, and personnel from the Bantustans of Transkei, Venda, Ciskei and Bophuthatswana.
But budgetary support and training needs have never matched the necessities of this historical background.
Emmanuel Nibishaka, in a paper for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in early 2011, said other factors like “high HIV/AIDS infection rates, aging soldiers, a top-heavy officer class, and a “serious skills shortage” were hampering development of South Africa’s military.
“Due to a lack of funds the army can deploy only one operational brigade of 3 000 … Military equipment is in an appalling state with only 20 out of 168 Olifants (tanks) and 16 out of 242 Rooikat armoured cars being deployed due to budget constraints,” he said at the time.
On the issue of discipline, he said: “For example, the South African military in Burundi from 2002 to 2008 recorded some 400 cases of misdemeanour and approximately 1 000 military trials were heard. In DRC, the record was equally dismal.”
A Brave Face
Commendably, South Africa is soldiering on.
Military authorities here said this week they were “not scared to go to war” and were setting sights on another hotspot – the DRC.
SANDF spokesperson Xolani Mabanga has said, “If they (M23 rebels fighting President Joseph Kabila’s government) declare war against the SA National Defence Force personnel, we are ready to tackle them.
“We, as the SANDF, will never be deterred by any circumstances to pursue or do what we are asked to do by the government of South Africa.”
Mabanga said the situation in the eastern DRC was different to that in CAR and they were confident that they would contribute to stabilisation of the SADC member state.