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No rest for weary peacekeepers

[South Africa] SA peacekeepers in Burundi. [2005]
SA peacekeepers in Burundi. (UN/IRIN)

Peace in Burundi might mean South African National Defence Force (SANDF) peacekeepers can finally go home, but other African conflicts suggest that rest and recovery for the heavily overstretched and underfunded troops might be short-lived.

"Hopefully this [is] the end, and a successful completion of the process," Henri Boshoff, military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think-tank, told IRIN.

SANDF's mandate in Burundi expired on 30 June and its 1,100 soldiers would be withdrawn, except for a small unit that would stay on to help the Burundians establish their own protection unit of some 300 troops, Boshoff said.

South Africa helped end Burundi's 15-year civil war, in which hundreds of thousands lost their lives. In 1999 former President Nelson Mandela was appointed Facilitator of the Arusha Peace Process, an accord was signed in 2000, and Mandela subsequently requested deployment of the SANDF to ensure the safe return of political leaders.

The South African Department of Defence envisioned the first mission taking place in 2007, but the situation in Burundi necessitated deployment as early as 2001. "The SANDF did the almost impossible by deploying a protection element as well as an infantry battalion within two weeks," Boshoff said.

Ethiopia and Mozambique also contributed peacekeepers, while South Africa provided the Force Commander and played a key role in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), and security sector reform (SSR), providing security during the 2004 election and the final demobilization of the last rebel group, Forces Nationales de Libération. "Lots of effort, finance, logistics and manpower went into the process," Boshoff said.

Overcommitted and underfunded

In line with South Africa's post-apartheid commitment to resolving Africa's conflicts, the Department of Foreign Affairs drafted a White Paper on Peace Missions as a guide in 1998, but the hasty deployment to Burundi led to operational, budgetary and personnel challenges, many of which remain.

According to the paper, deployment at any given time would be limited to one battalion - around 700 troops, depending on the mission requirements - yet the SANDF is "currently deploying three battalions, one in Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], one in Darfur [Sudan] and one in Burundi," Boshoff said.

Peacekeeping missions require a demanding mix of age, expertise and operational readiness from different units in the defence force, severely overstretching the army's capacity.

Ideally, a mission force would comprise a minimum of three units resting and training at home to each one deployed, but a one-to-one ratio was the best the SANDF could currently muster, "resulting in problems with discipline, welfare and morale," Boshoff commented.

''Discipline is one of the biggest problems the army is grappling with ... the external deployments are without a doubt part of the problem''

In a recent report, South African Army Priorities and Roles in the Early 21st Century, Brig-Gen George Kruys (Rtd), a research associate at the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria, commented: "Discipline is one of the biggest problems the army is grappling with ... the external deployments are without a doubt part of the disciplinary problem."

The SANDF record in Burundi from 2002 to 2008 included some 400 cases of misdemeanour and nearly 1,000 military trials for offences ranging from murder and rape to absence without leave and "rebelliousness", the report noted.

"Taking into account the major role which the army must play in the government's priority task, namely, to deploy peacekeeping forces in Africa," the South African Army simply "does not have the funds to carry out proper training," and "it would not be able to obtain and maintain the needed equipment to carry out the roles it has been tasked to perform," Kruys pointed out.

Of major concern was a lack of understanding on the part of South African politicians regarding the army's financial and deployment needs. "When making external affairs policy speeches" politicians showed "no knowledge of the real state of the army", Kruys said. "The malfunctioning of army vehicles during peacekeeping deployments in Africa is a common problem."

According to Boshoff, the question is: "What will happen with that Burundi battalion?" Redeployment to DRC is already being considered.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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