JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As South Africa reels from its biggest combat loss since the end of apartheid, President Jacob Zuma’s government is facing a furious backlash over why its troops were in the Central African Republic during a rebel takeover.
The Zuma government has offered a dizzying array of explanations for its decision to send 200 troops to the obscure African country.
Among the reasons punted by South African officials: military training for local troops, special guard service for the president, bolstering peace and stability in the region, building “fraternal relations” with an African nation.
On Monday, Zuma delivered the bad news that at least 13 soldiers had been killed in fighting over the weekend as rebels stormed the capital Bangui. Another 27 troops were injured, and one remains missing, the president told the nation.
Some 200 soldiers “fought bandits numbering more than 1,000 people,” in “a high tempo battle for nine hours defending the South African military base, until the bandits raised a white flag,” Zuma said.
President Francois Bozize, who came to power in a 2003 coup before winning elections widely described as a sham, fled the Central African Republic for neighboring Cameroon as the Seleka rebels took over.
The deaths are a huge disaster for Zuma on the eve of hosting the BRICS summit of emerging economies. Today leaders of Brazil, Russia, China and India will meet with South Africa in the coastal city of Durban for talks on trade, development and security issues.
The Johannesburg Star reports that Zuma ignored military advice in January to pull troops out of the Central African Republic, “saying it would look bad if South Africa cut and ran.” Instead, he sent in 200 reinforcements, the report said.
The presidency and department of international relations have actively concealed the reason for the deployment, the Star reported, portraying it as a “technical” mission when in fact it was a political decision for South Africa’s foreign policy.
Critics are hammering Zuma’s government for a clear explanation as to why South African troops are in the Central African Republic, a landlocked and impoverished nation most notable for its diamonds, gold and other minerals.
The government has said soldiers were sent to fulfill a bilateral cooperation agreement originally signed in 2007, to provide the Central African Republic army with military training as “part of our efforts to contribute towards peace and stability in the region.”
Another reason given was to protect President Bozize. Zuma, in announcing the combat deaths, said South Africa will keep supporting "the prevention of the military overthrow of constitutionally elected governments and thus subverting democracy.”
But in yet another explanation, the ruling African National Congress party said the troops “had been part of the contingency of the army that had gone to CAR to assist in rebuilding the military and infrastructure of that country and to serve as peacekeeping force contingency.”
“This deployment was consistent with our policy of building fraternal relations with countries of the continent,” an ANC statement said.
While there is mounting pressure for the troops remaining in the Central African Republic to be called back to South Africa, Gen. Solly Shoke on Monday said they will not be pulled out of the country.
"Our troops are still there until there is a political arrangement. Running away is not an option," Shoke told journalists.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the deaths of the soldiers, describing the military’s deployment to the Central African Republic as “a complete disaster from the beginning,” with an official reason that “was never plausible.”
South Africa’s influential trade union federation demanded the remaining South African soldiers in the Central African Republic be withdrawn “at the earliest opportunity.”
Spokesman Patrick Craven called for a full investigation into the deaths, saying that South African troops must not be “inadvertently sucked into internal civil wars or factional battles.”
“South Africa must also only deploy troops when asked to do so by the African Union, instead of just bilateral arrangements, so that the AU as a whole can take responsibility in such cases,” a statement said.
The South African National Defense Force Union said South Africa “had no further business being in a country governed by a crooked dictator.”