It marks the start of a tricky, unpopular and possibly very costly military adventure South Africa does not want yet cannot realistically avoid, but the Status of Forces agreement between Mozambique and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on troop deployment to combat the Muslim fundamentalist insurrection into the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado has finally been signed.
Tensions between Mozambique and South Africa – officially denied by the South African government but clear for anyone to see – delayed the signing, but pen was finally put to paper late last week.
This means South Africa is going to be militarily involved – for better or worse.
On Sunday night (July 18), Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and top departmental officials briefed the South African parliament’s joint standing committee on defence.
Despite repeated questions by opposition members, however, important details on the extent of troop deployments and the projected cost to the South African taxpayer were not provided.
The omission of such basic information raises two possibilities:
- The first is that no estimated budgeting or estimates of troop numbers required has been done, which would expose a lack of planning the likes of which has been only too apparent in the security cluster of the South African government over the past week.
- The second is that South African authorities are loath to announce such estimates, which would be nonsensical as South African law requires President Cyril Ramaphosa to provide such estimates to parliament in writing within the next few days.
Vague, but telling
Vague as the input by defence authorities was, two important new points were made, both of which signal a change of tone by South Africa on the Cabo Delgado military intervention.
Firstly, the current plan is to only send a rapid deployment force to Cabo Delgado with the stated and limited aim of gathering information and identifying possibly problematic issues for the possible deployment of a full SADC military force “should it still be needed,” in the cryptic words of Mapisa-Nqakula.
She said both South Africa and Botswana are monitoring very closely whether such a military deployment will indeed be necessary.
According to DA shadow minister of defence Kobus Marais, the change of tone evident in these statements indicates a definite and quite sudden lessening of urgency and keenness for the deployment on South Africa’s part.
This change in South African attitude is certainly not informed by any change in the situation in Cabo Delgado.
Rather, the tensions between Mozambique and SADC, and the deployment of Rwandan troops in the theatre of battle (details below), would have played a part in occasioning the change in attitude, as well as wariness on South Africa’s part of a protracted Vietnam-type military commitment with long supply lines in a volatile and deadly environment.
South Africa also has little appetite for a financial burden the precarious South African economy can currently ill afford.
Secondly, South Africa’s new-found hesitancy is also clearly evident in the omission of a target date to have “boots on the ground” in the province.
As recently as eight days ago, South African authorities were much more pointed about dates, but any South African gung-ho tendencies have dissipated completely.
So far, the proposed military intervention has been a stop-start affair characterised by delays and disunity.
The SADC military force was expected to have boots on the ground by last Wednesday (July 14) to try and stem the tide of the insurrection.
The conflict has left 3 000 people dead and 700 000 displaced since it took shape in October 2017, after Africa’s richest offshore natural gas deposits were discovered off Cabo Delgado, some 1 600km north of Maputo.
This has led to French oil company Total withdrawing from its Cabo Delgado operations, American oil giant Exxon Mobil placing its investment on hold since 2019, and Italian oil company ENI running an entirely ocean-based operation.
South African investments in the region include mining, security and small business interests.
The Mozambican defence force’s counter-offensives against the insurgents failed to stop the advancing forces, and in March the insurgents captured Palma harbour near the Tanzanian border.
A South African citizen, Adrian Nel, was killed trying to flee the besieged town.
Tensions between South Africa and Mozambique escalated further a month later when a South African drone was shot down by Mozambican security forces and four South African spies were arrested by authorities in Maputo, leading to the suspension of Robert McBride as head of the foreign branch of the South African State Security Agency (SSA), which manages the country’s spies.
Tensions involving SA
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, says these specific events feed into three general current causes of tension between South Africa and other African states, including SADC members and specifically Mozambique.
The first is the proliferation and complete dominance of South African consumer goods on those countries’ markets, while relatively few locally manufactured goods get exported to South Africa, creating feelings that colonialism of a special type might be at play.
Read: Mozambique’s vast gas fields will fuel growth, says Grindrod
Secondly, the periodic xenophobic attacks in South Africa have sparked strong anti-South African sentiment in these countries.
Thirdly, former Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang is still in custody in South Africa (and has been since December 2018), despite calls for his extradition to either the USA or Mozambique to stand trial. He is accused of fraud and accepting bribes.
Louw-Vaudran points out that the anti-South African sentiment in Mozambique remains strong despite much South African aid whenever natural-disaster-prone Mozambique requires such.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has often assisted when floods strike Mozambique. The South African Navy has also, for many years, intervened to combat pirates off the entire east coast of Africa. These actions have clearly failed to capture the hearts and minds of the Mozambican people, or the government in Maputo.
Furthermore, despite the realities of the near total failure of Mozambique’s defence force to halt or reverse the insurrection, hardliners in Frelimo, the Mozambican governing party, maintain that Mozambique will handle the situation by itself.
These hardliners claim that Frelimo – and Mozambique – attained freedom without foreign help and will maintain that freedom without foreign intervention.
Nevertheless, Mozambique has agreed to the deployment of 1 000 Rwandan troops to help restore stability and to commence combat and security operations in Cabo Delgado. But Rwanda, of course, is not a SADC member.
Despite all the indications already listed, Mapisa-Nqakula refuses to admit that tensions exist between South Africa and Mozambique, preferring to call them “alleged tensions” at a media conference this week.
Additionally, there is a growing belief in South Africa that the SANDF would do better to continue quelling internal anarchy rather than dealing with Mozambican woes. There were also the delays in the signing of the Status of Forces agreement – a requirement before South African forces can be deployed.
South Africa and SADC have every reason to help avert a humanitarian disaster in Cabo Delgado and the hijacking of its economic wealth. Any refugee problem and any growth in regional Islamic fundamentalism will be sure to impact all SADC member states.
Furthermore, the economic boon of the natural gas fields is so massive it can benefit the whole region. But if Mozambique reaps the whirlwind, its exposure as a failed state may well foretell that the effects will not cease at the Mozambican border.
No SADC member state will remain untouched by the effects of such a fall-out, and all will want to avoid it.
All of this means South African investors and the South African government alike have much to gain from a successful SADC military intervention against the insurrection.
However, the region’s fractured politics and state failure contribute to growing pessimism that the insurrection in Cabo Delgado will be quelled anytime soon.