South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926



Our speaker on 12 September 2013 was Major Helmoed Römer-Heitman who discussed the African military situation with a major emphasis on South Africa and its peacekeeping operations. Why this interest in Africa? We have vital interests and assets outside of our borders. We have the largest economy in Africa, with 21.7% of Africa’s GDP and the 28th biggest economy in the world, so we need to have a stable and prospering regional economy outside of South Africa’s borders to enable us to increase our business with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Our military involvement is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Central African Republic and the South Sudan/ Darfur area, and with ships operating in the Mozambique Channel. One of the world’s most important shipping routes is round the Cape and there are vital oil and gas resources on both the African East and West coasts.

If we are to be taken seriously by the rest of the world we need to be part of the peacekeeping activities in our continent. This is something our politicians have yet to learn – our forces are too small, the equipment and the support capabilities are just not adequate. The budget does not allow for peacekeeping operations in three or four countries at a time. The troops do their best and this best is often quite outstanding.

The blame rests with the politicians who do not provide sufficient funds and expect miracles to be performed. We do not have enough suitable transport aircraft. Our C130’s are the oldest still operating in the world and cannot carry the equipment needed. The Airbus A400M would fit the bill but the SANDF’s order was cancelled and we had to hire Antonov 124 and Illyushin 76 aircraft to transport our troops and their equipment at great cost. The result of this lack of resources will be loss of lives as happened in the Central African Republic. Government must provide the tools and force numbers needed to carry out regional missions, if these are to be carried out successfully.

Our troops in the Southern Sudan/Darfur area were at battalion strength, but without air support or armour. The opposition were Jangaweed, NLF and JEM rebels, well-armed and -trained and mounted in “technicals”.[1] One of their raids started in Chad and crossed a large area to Omdurman, showing expertise in logistics. In skirmishes with these our troops did well.

We have had a battalion in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is hilly and rugged, with dense indigenous forest and a thick cover of bush. Roads are few and far between and in very poor shape, as illustrated by our speaker. There are few paved airfields, most are just gravel strips which become swamps in heavy rain and there are no railways in most of the east. The government is attempting to stop rebellions in the east with little success as these are supported from outside the DRC. The quality of the various rebel groups varies from ill-disciplined rabble to well-trained, disciplined and heavily-armed armies.

Our troops have done quite well but consist in the main of a battalion of infantry without armour or artillery. Air support is scanty, being mainly UN-seconded contingents from member countries. They are based at Goma, near Lake Kivu. Besides various rebellions, both internal and externally supported, there are further problems related to illegal mining and logging – some of these are also interwoven with the rebellions.

Our most recent involvement has been in the Central African Republic. In December 2012 a rebellion started and the African Union got involved in trying to stabilize the situation. At the end of 2012, our government sent a training team to Bangui to train government troops while trying not be seen to be overtly supporting President Bozize of the CAR. There were also other African Union (AU) troops from Republic of Congo, Chad, Cameroon and Gabon, and some French troops with Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs) guarding the airport.

It was then decided that we should send a force apparently to protect the training team. This consisted of a paratroop company and some Special Forces troops, armed with nothing heavier than 81mm mortars, a pair of 107mm rocket launchers and 12,7mm Heavy General-Purpose Machine-Guns (HGPMGs). Armour, artillery and air support were non-existent and transport consisted of Special Forces light airborne jeeps and some Gecko vehicles – the latter being a six-wheeled, all-terrain utility vehicle designed for logistical support in order to transport supplies and equipment from landing zones.

The rebels broke the ceasefire and advanced rapidly on the capital Bangui. They were at first poorly armed but transported by trucks. Later they were more numerous and better armed and trained. There were more vehicles, radios and heavier weapons. Many of them were not CAR citizens. The local army was small and not very well trained. By March, Bangui was in danger. Our force was deployed north of the town with the Special Forces deployed furthest forward and the Para company with its machine guns and two 81 mm mortars in support.

The Special Forces were outnumbered heavily and retired, only to run into an ambush. They fought their way through this and joined the main force, which carried out a fighting retreat to Police College which basically indefensible and there they made a stand, repelling the Seleka rebels with heavy losses. They eventually made their way back to the airport from which they and the 15 dead were flown back to South Africa.

The troops had done an excellent job and distinguished themselves. As usual, there was no air, artillery or armoured support. Efforts were made to send aircraft and helicopters up in support but, with the lack of suitable aircraft, to no avail. A disaster was avoided by the troops but political will was, as usual, not supported by any attempt to provide the means, even if the means were available.

Our speaker compared this with what happened in Mali. During 2012 a rebellion started in that country and, by mid-2012, the north had fallen to the rebels. The conflict became a war between Islamists and Tuaregs and the war spread to the south. France, the previous colonial power, was asked for help. The rebels were well-equipped, not only with “technicals” but also with MRLs and APCs and 23mm guns.

The French responded with forces flown in from France, using French Air Force C130’s and other aircraft. These were later supported by RAF, USAF and RCAF C17s and C130s from Belgium. Heavy equipment was moved by sea in French naval vessels to the Cote D’Ivoire and thence by road to Mali. France had some troops in West Africa and there was a force from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in place.

A counter-offensive was launched by French, Malian and ECOWAS forces which was successful. This was supported by French Rafale and Mirage 2000 aircraft, operating first from France using FAF tankers and the from Bamako in Mali. The French used AMX10 armoured cars, APCs and self-propelled artillery and had air support from Puma and Tiger helicopters. Rather different to or response in the Central African Republic!

Our speaker then looked at the general military situation in Africa, showing us slides of the conflict areas. Only the southern end of Africa seems to be peaceful! There are a number of problems common to all African countries.

The first of these is piracy on both the west and the east coasts. The Somali problem is spreading south to the Comores, Madagascar and Tanzania. The pirates are better equipped, using satellite navigation, fast skiffs, mother ships and modern communications and it is obvious that the pirates are being controlled from the Persian Gulf area or elsewhere. Even tourist beaches are no longer immune. Yachting in this area is becoming dangerous and navies are too weak to counter the problem. The same applies to the West Coast of Africa, with the problems spreading from Nigeria west and south. Piracy here includes hijacking oil tankers and transferring the oil to other ships, as well as stealing oil from pipelines and attacking oil exploration and production platforms. The navies in the area are doing their best to improve their capabilities.

South Africa has a frigate or other naval vessel and a submarine in the Mozambique Channel on anti-piracy patrol. This has had some success.

A further problem is the narcotics trade. Africa is increasingly becoming a transit area for drugs moving from South West Asia to Europe and the USA and from South America to Europe. The trade is worth billions and the traffickers are using hi-tech equipment, including aircraft, submarines, torpedoes and ultra-fast boats to move their drugs. They are totally ruthless and, in Africa, will destroy any government opposing them. They will finance any insurrection to help them achieve their goals. Lesser problems include illegal mining and logging.

Maj Heitman then spoke of individual countries:

* Sudan and South Sudan – there is heavy fighting on the borders between these two with aircraft and heavy weapons in use by both sides. Darfur is a problem area and there are other small rebellions in progress;
* Ethiopia and Eritrea – these have border problems which now and then break into open hostilities, a simmering pot waiting to boil over;
* Somalia – a lawless, unstable country wracked by fighting between the various warlords and with an Islamist organization Al Shaheeb trying to take over and riding into neighbouring countries;
* Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – in varying degrees of destabilsation after the “Arab Spring”, fighting between Islamists and more moderate groups, no functioning government in any of these;
* Madagascar and the Comoros – unstable and a pirate threat;
* Tanzania and Malawi – border dispute in Lake Malawi, pirates off the coast and secessionists in Zanzibar;
* Kenya – troops in Somalia, instability in the NW area;
* Uganda – problems with the Lord Army, troops in Somalia, guerrillas from the DRC;
* Rwanda and Burundi – basing guerrillas operating in the DRC, the former has troops in Somalia;
* Zambia—border dispute with DRC in the Lake Mweru area;
* Democratic Republic of Congo – has never had a stable government, constant conflict and neighbours harbouring armed groups attempting to take over all or part of the country, secessionist movements in various parts of the country, border problems with neighbours;
* Republic of Congo – wants Cabinda, has simmering insurgencies;
* Angola – secessionists in Cabinda, border problems with DRC and Republic of Congo, simmering instability in the interior, Piracy problems;
* Moçambique – RENAMO is greatly dissatisfied with the economic imbalance due to severe nepotism benefitting only the ruling elite of FRELIMO, in spite of the peace accord, just when the economy is improving;
* West Africa – nearly every country (Chad, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger) has an unstable government, many are having or have just had a rebellion or civil war. Of these, especially Senegal, Sierra Leone and Gambia are having problems with Islamist insurgencies;
* Mauritania, Cameroon and Guinea Bissau – have border problems and instability problems, and
* Nigeria -- Islamist Boko Harem insurgents active in the north, piracy and secessionist problems.

All of the West African countries have problems with piracy, criminal activities, Islamist insurgency activity, tribal differences and cross-border trouble-making. It does not look as if this will soon change for the better in the foreseeable future. Algeria, Morocco and the southernmost countries in Africa seem to be the most stable ones. For the moment, that is……

Our Defence Budget is the second lowest of the big five in Africa (South Africa, Egypt, Angola, Algeria and Nigeria). Our Defence Spending as percentage of GDP and Defence Spending as % of Government Spending is the lowest of the big five.

The Treasurer, Mr Bob Buser, thanked Major Heitman for his most informative and interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.

[1] A technical is a type of improvised fighting vehicle, typically a civilian or military non-combat vehicle, modified to provide an offensive capability similar to a military gun truck. It is usually an open-backed civilian pickup truck or four-wheel drive vehicle mounting a machine gun, light anti-aircraft gun, recoilless rifle, or other support weapon. [Wikipedia]

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /