South Africa after the Central African Republic: saving the African agenda

Photo © GCIS
Central African Republic (CAR) President François Bozize pays President Jacob Zuma a courtesy call just days before the deaths of South African troops in the CAR.

When the bodies of United States army rangers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, American public opinion could not comprehend why their compatriots had to die for Somalia. Somalia was seen to be far from the ‘American national interest’.

In the wake of domestic pressure and the debate about the national interest, Somalia marked a turning point for American involvement in African conflicts. Similarly, the death of 13 South African soldiers on 23 March 2013 in battle between Damara and Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR) left South African public opinion in a state of incomprehension.

Arguably, the Central African Republic is far removed from the daily preoccupations of many South Africans. The country is not of immediate strategic importance to South Africa, nor is it a member state of the South African Development Community (SADC). Worse, the South African presence was on the basis of a bilateral agreement, and not politically grounded in a multilateral framework under the sponsorship of the United Nations or the African Union. As such, there has been a list of recurrent questions in the South African public: what where our troops doing there and whose interests where they protecting? ‘What did they die for?’ – beamed the front-page of one of the Sunday newspapers. These set of questions reduced foreign policy to its most basic tenet (domestic concerns), while opening up space for speculation with potentially devastating consequences for the country’s prestige and continental initiatives. Two negative feedback loops (internal and external) that emerged out of South Africa’s engagement in CAR could harm the country’s pursuit of an ambitious Africa policy.

First, the ephemeral CAR debacle raised doubts among South Africans about the ability of the government to pursue a foreign policy that speaks to urgent domestic priorities. While the African agenda is arguably the most crucial anchor in how South Africa’s foreign policy framing ofes the national interest, the country’s involvement in CAR has turned in the eyes of domestic opinion the African agenda into a part-Frankenstein. Negative opinions and perceptions on the part of the South African public with regard to foreign policy articulation and implementation could emasculate government of the urgency with which the country has pursued the African agenda for well over a decade. Second, South Africa’s presence in the CAR and the manner in which the country’s presence ended could undermine the country’s prestige, peace efforts and operations in Africa. The net result, which the country can ill-afford could be ambiguity and timidity in the pursuit of what is the very essence of South Africa’s international standing, the African agenda.

How the South African government should fix the African Agenda

What went wrong in CAR? More important, how can the South African government avoid such mistakes from occurring? South African foreign policy practitioners and defence planners are arguably busy with a post-mortem in order to repair the bruises from CAR. Events in that country turned against what was for the South African government the well-intentioned implementation of a bilateral relationship with a democratically elected regime. It is on the basis of this analysis that the South African government through the relevant agencies, including the Presidency, the Departments of International Relations and Cooperation, and Defence provided ex post-facto explanations about involvement in CAR (a cooperation agreement signed between the two governments in 2007, revisited in 2010 and renewed in December 2012). Therefore, when the South African government acted on a request in December 2012 from former President François Bosizé to send troops to the Central African Republic, it argued that it was acting on the basis of a bilateral agreement.

What is in question here is not necessarily the intent of the South African government to pursue defence diplomacy actively, thereby contributing through capacity building to better-trained African armies and democratic security sectors in Africa. The crucial question in light of these expectations is: how should the South African government operationalise its role in Africa? What are the appropriate tools to be deployed in different types of political and military contexts? The African agenda is not rolled-out in ideal type situations. Africa is fraught with risks and South Africa will not always be able to control events. There will be inefficiencies and lives of South African servicemen and women are likely to be lost as South Africa assumes greater responsibilities for continental security challenges.

To navigate the complex and difficult African terrain, the country should rely on solid analytical capabilities in its embassies, including strong local, regional and continental partnerships. Furthermore, the country should build sound intelligence networks with external powers, including France, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. As CAR has shown with devastating consequences, to look at these powers through the anti-imperialist prism of the Cold War is not entirely helpful. South Africa as a new entrant in African affairs cannot afford to ignore the knowledge and understanding of the African context amassed over decades by these traditional powers.

Grounding the national interest in the domestic democratic order

South Africa’s engagement in Africa is based on an assessment of structural domestic capabilities and systemic continental challenges. As one of the bright spots on the African continent, including the largest economy, South Africa should promote peace and stability in Africa. The country has one of the best-equipped and professional armies on the continent. In line with the country’s foreign policy in which the African agenda is an important anchor, Pretoria has an urgent role to play in peace operations. It is in South Africa’s national interest to do so. However, the link between South Africa’s involvement in African conflicts and domestic priorities can be misunderstood. This is not only a function of the elite and bureaucratic driven nature of foreign policy. Involvement in CAR highlighted a shocking failure in South African foreign policy: democratic transparency and institutional accountability.

Worryingly, South Africa’s foreign policy debate and decision-making is not sufficiently localised. Therefore, the country’s fateful odyssey in CAR opened space for suspicion about the true intent of South Africa’s involvement in that country. Without substantive information and democratic scrutiny, including debate about decisions that could result in the death of servicemen and women, government would engage in near futile damage control exercises.

In order to save the remaining legs of the African agenda, the death of South African soldiers in the Central African Republic should be a turning point for the country’s engagement in Africa. Crucially, it should lead to the country’s proactive domestication of the African agenda (as the national interest) through democratic accountability, before and after important foreign policy decisions are taken.