🔒 South Africa’s Congo deployment: Rwanda showdown a risk

In a pivotal regional initiative, South Africa spearheads Operation Thiba, a 16-nation Southern African Development Community effort to address conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Facing a complex situation involving displaced millions and rich mineral resources, the mission replaces a long-standing UN force. Amid tensions with Rwanda’s alleged support for rebels, South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi’s deployment, though ambitious, strains national resources. Funding uncertainties and inadequate air cover pose significant challenges, reflecting a precarious venture into a volatile conflict zone.

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By Antony Sguazzin and Michael J. Kavanagh

South Africa is leading a regional force that’s deploying into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and risks being caught up in a conflict that has displaced 7 million people. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Operation Thiba is an initiative of the 16-nation Southern African Development Community, though it’s unclear how it will be funded. Troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi will begin to replace a United Nations force that’s been in Congo for 25 years and a year-old East African Community deployment. Neither has been able to stabilize a region that’s rich in tin, tantalum, gold and other metals. 

Rwanda has been training, funding and fighting alongside the M23 rebel group operating in eastern Congo, according to UN experts, and the new mission puts SADC on the opposite side of the conflict. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has denied backing the rebels. 

SADC won’t be fighting the Rwanda Defence Force directly, but the mission may lead “to fighting the RDF behind the M23,” said Onesphore Sematumba, Congo analyst at the International Crisis Group. Two South African soldiers deployed as part of the SADC mission were killed by a mortar attack this week.

While the operation may bolster South Africa’s ambition to be a leading force in resolving continental crises, it will place further strain on its already depleted coffers. The country has also contributed troops to a force that has been fighting militants aligned with Islamic State in northern Mozambique since 2021, a deployment that was in part made to encourage TotalEnergies SE to proceed with a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project. That operation is meant to be concluded by mid-July, although it’s unclear if a recent resurgence in attacks will prompt a rethink.

South Africa will send 2,900 troops to Congo for a year at a cost of 2.37 billion rand ($124 million), according to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office. Funding won’t come from the defense department’s existing budget, it said, without giving details. 

“South Africa has participated in peacekeeping operations for many years on the continent and it sees this as a national duty,” Ramaphosa told the Cape Town Press Club on Thursday. 

Congo’s government and South Africa’s presidency and defense, international relations and treasury departments didn’t respond to requests for comment. SADC’s secretariat said it couldn’t comment for security reasons. Moses Kunkuyu, Malawi’s information minister, said the country will deploy troops but didn’t specify how the cost would be met while Tanzania’s government wouldn’t comment.

 

SADC’s defense subcommittee recommended a $436 million budget for the mission, Zimbabwe’s state-owned paper, The Herald, cited Angola’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Frederick Shava as saying in September.

SADC approached the European Union for funding and was rebuffed, people familiar with the situation said, asking not to be identified as the information isn’t public.

The US Congress would hesitate in supporting American or UN financial support for a SADC force, a congressional aide told Bloomberg. Congress turned down a request to support the East African force in 2022 outside of the UN funding mechanism, and Tshisekedi’s decision to kick those troops out last year makes financing another regional force seem even riskier, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troop contingents with the UN’s Congo mission have largely been paid for by that organization. 

A major concern for the SADC forces will be a lack of adequate air cover. South Africa has underfunded its air force for years, with just eight of the country’s 50 attack and transport helicopters in flying condition, Defense Minister Thandi Modise said in a reply to a parliamentary question in October. 

“Everything is falling apart. We are so thinly sliced in terms of air capability,” said Kobus Marais, defense spokesman for South Africa’s main opposition, the Democratic Alliance. “If we are not properly resourced you are unnecessarily endangering the lives of soldiers. You are setting up for failures and they will come back in body bags.”

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