Last Hurrah or Sign of the Future? The Performance of South African Mercenaries against Boko Haram

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

June 30, 2015

Earlier this year, Nigeria’s military fortunes brightened suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of what at first appeared to be a disastrous campaign against the forces of Boko Haram. Though the arrival of new weapons and equipment played a role in this reversal, it now appears that the three-month deployment of South African mercenaries as military trainers and even participants in the fighting in northeastern Nigeria played a major role in enabling Nigeria’s demoralized army to begin expelling Boko Haram militants from their newly occupied territories. While a change in government in Abuja has brought an end to their mission, the evident success of these private military contractors has raised new questions regarding the utility and desirability of using mercenaries in situations where national militaries have failed to make progress against insurgents and terrorists.[1]

SA Mercs 1

Reva Mark III Armored Personnel Carriers operated by South African military contractors in Maiduguri

Lack of political will at the highest levels of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government was largely responsible for the failure of Nigeria’s security services to contain the Boko Haram threat. With the movement seizing new territory and captured arms almost daily, Jonathan suddenly found himself running out of time before the March 2015 presidential election to deal with a file he had done his best to ignore. Something had to be done about Boko Haram quickly, and the president turned to an almost inconceivable solution; the introduction of white and black mercenaries to reverse the fortunes of the Nigerian military, once considered one of the continent’s strongest, but now apparently unable to crush a local rebellion by religious extremists.

While the participation of Nigeria’s Chadian and Nigerien neighbors in a military campaign against the terrorists could be explained by the regional nature of the Boko Haram threat, formally calling on a foreign power to restore order in northeast Nigeria just prior to elections was out of the question. Even if South Africa was considered as a source of military assistance, Jonathan and his aides would have been well aware of the deteriorating state of South Africa’s own military and its less than stellar performance in the Central African Republic in 2013.[2]

Nigerian authorities did not deny the existence of the foreign contractors, but insisted they were only involved in training Nigerian troops in the use of the new weapons arriving for use in the fight against Boko Haram (BBC, March 13, 2015). Most of the mercenaries engaged by Nigeria appear to have been personnel of Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP), a private military company run by Colonel Eeben Barlow, a widely-known private military contractor and former commander of the South African Defense Force’s 32 Battalion.  STTEP recruits experienced soldiers by word of mouth, including “reformed” South Africans or Namibians who may have fought against the South African Defense Force (SADF – South Africa’s apartheid-era army) as communist guerrillas during South Africa’s border wars.

Despite statements of sympathy for Nigeria’s predicament, both the U.S. and British governments remained firm in their position that the atrocious human rights record of the Nigerian military during the Jonathan administration precluded a military partnership on the ground or a resupply of armaments.

Shortly after his election, new President Muhammadu Buhari (a retired Nigerian Army major-general who seized power in a 1983 military coup, serving as head-of-state until 1985) expressed his objections to the use of mercenaries in Nigeria (Pretoria News, May 21, 2015). Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osinbajo (now vice-president) ignored certain military realities in declaring his emphatic opposition to the South Africans’ deployment in Nigeria: “Because of the way that this government has degraded the army, we now find the need to engage mercenaries… There is absolutely no reason at all why the Nigerian army, which is one of the finest armies in the world, now have to engage mercenaries to come and fight” (VOA, March 20, 2015).

Following reports from major human rights organizations of widespread human rights abuses by the Nigerian military in northeast Nigeria, Buhari pledged to bring an end to such violations, promising in his inaugural speech: “We shall improve operational and legal mechanisms so that disciplinary steps are taken against proven human rights violations by the armed forces” (Reuters, June 4, 2015).

Like many of its West African neighbors, Nigeria has prior experience with mercenaries, who were used by both sides in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). A large number of Chadian mercenaries and European pilots engaged on the federal side, while a smaller number of Rhodesians and Europeans (mainly British, French, Belgian, Portuguese and German) fought unsuccessfully for Biafran independence.

Who are the Mercenaries?

Most of the South Africans deployed to Nigeria would have served together, black and white, in a select number of South African and South West African military units and paramilitaries of the apartheid era. Others will have served together as private military contractors in the post-apartheid era in organizations such as Executive Outcomes.

SA Mercs 2Koevoet Forces on Patrol in South-West Africa (now Namibia) in the 1980s

Some of the South African contractors are believed to be veterans of Koevoet (“Crowbar”), a white-led, mixed race police paramilitary that operated with great efficiency and brutality in South-West Africa (now Namibia) between 1979 and 1989. Working on a bounty system for killed or captured “terrorists” of the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), Koevoet scored enormous numbers of kills but took few prisoners. Koevoet bush-craft and tactics were based on the earlier work of the Portuguese Flechas (Arrows) of Angola and Mozambique and Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts. Like these elite formations, Koevet recruited captured fighters who had been “turned,” and occasionally disguised themselves as Marxist guerrillas to carry out ambushes or specific missions.

Other South Africans appear to be veterans of 32 Battalion (a.k.a. the Buffalo Battalion, or “the Terrible Ones”) of the SADF. This white-led unit (recently described by the UK’s Sky News as “a foreign legion of racist mercenaries,” was composed largely of black troops who once belonged to the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA), an Angolan independence movement that lost a post-independence power struggle with the rival Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) in 1975. 32 Battalion was deployed largely in southern Angola and played an important part in the series of South African operations in Angola in 1987-1988 against Soviet-led Angolan government forces and their Cuban allies known broadly as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

32 Battalion was created and led by Commandant Jan Breytenbach, who was once involved in a covert South African training mission for Biafran rebels in Nigeria.[3] Much hated by South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), the unit was disbanded in 1993 and its black members retired to the dusty town of Pomfret, where in the absence of other opportunities many continued to seek employment from former SADF officers who had gone on to form private military firms such as Executive Outcomes (EO – 1989-1998) in post-apartheid South Africa. As in their original units, the private military contractors continued to use white officers and senior NCOs, with the other ranks filled largely by black troops.

The “Buffalos” figured in Executive Outcomes operations in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Many were unfortunate enough to allow themselves to be recruited by former SAS member and Sandline International co-founder Simon Mann for a failed coup attempt in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in 2004. Most endured a nasty stretch in prison in Zimbabwe (where they had been arrested en route to Equatorial Guinea) before being returned to Pomfret.[4] A smaller number in the advance party found themselves doing long stretches in Equatorial Guinea’s notorious Black Beach Prison where they were joined by Simon Mann after his extradition from Zimbabwe.

It is likely that some other South Africans may be veterans of the SADF’s Special Forces, known as “the Recces.” These units were once highly active in covert operations throughout southern Africa.

Eastern Europeans were also hired as military contractors by Nigeria and served alongside the South Africans, but their presence does not carry the same political baggage and no complaints have been made. Information about the East Europeans is in short supply, including whether they have remained in Nigeria under separate contract. Ukrainians have become ubiquitous throughout Africa as contracted civil and military pilots of both aircraft and helicopters. Some reports indicate that they have been joined in Nigeria by Russian and Georgian military contractors.

STTEP’s Nigerian Campaign

According to STTEP chairman Eeben Barlow, the military firm was engaged for work in Nigeria as a sub-contractor for an un-named primary contractor in December 2014. Their original mission was to rescue the over 250 schoolgirls from Chibok kidnapped by Boko Haram, though this soon evolved into the creation of a mobile strike force incorporating Nigerian troops capable of reversing Boko Haram’s offensive momentum. The South Africans established a base in a corner of Maiduguri’s airport, closed for the last two years due to instability, but still capable of providing a base for aerial attacks and helicopter missions.

SA Mercs 3Strike Force 72 Operating in Borno State

The STTEP contractors were eventually attached to Nigeria’s elite 72 Strike Force in January 2015 to create a mobile strike force “with its own organic air support, intelligence, communications, logistics and other relevant combat support elements.”[5] After a period of intense training, the strike force conducted its first successful operation in late February. Since then, the South Africans appear to have played a major role in flushing Boko Haram fighters out of their camps hidden in the thick brush of the Sambisa Forest, though some elements remain due to a failure to complete this operation. There is no evidence that either Barlow or the South Africans in the field coordinated in any way with Chadian or Nigerien troops operating in the same region.

Founded in 2006, STTEP International Ltd. describes itself as “an international, privately-owned military, intelligence and law enforcement training and advisory company.” STTEP’s motto is “Failure is never an option,” and the firm claims to have “never failed in any of its missions, undertakings or projects.” The company’s operational procedure is to align itself with the armed forces of the client government to achieve strategic and operational goals through “military input and advice and support at both the operational and tactical levels.” Areas of claimed expertise include counter-terrorism, offensive counter drug operation, unconventional warfare, semi-conventional warfare and covert/clandestine operations.[6]

In all cases, Barlow emphasizes the “African” character of STTEP, a factor he believes improves relations with client nation militaries in Africa and helps training succeed where foreign military missions fail due to “poor training, bad advice, a lack of strategy, vastly different tribal affiliations, ethnicity, religion, languages, cultures [and] not understanding the conflict and enemy.”[7]

Barlow rejects the common media theme that the (mostly black) South Africans working in Nigeria and elsewhere are apartheid-era holdovers:

Some in the media like to refer to us as ‘racists’ or ‘apartheid soldiers’ with little knowledge of our organization… We are primarily white, black, and brown Africans who reside on this continent and are accepted as such by African governments… Had we been the so-called racists some media whores insist on calling us, do you think any African government would even want to speak to us? I very much doubt it.[8]

The Nigerian contract allowed Barlow to demonstrate the virtues of his tactical approach, which he describes as “relentless offensive action.” According to Barlow:

Troops need to develop their aggression level to such a point that the enemy fears them. Aggressive pursuit is aimed at initiating contact as heavily with the enemy as possible.[9]

Using expert trackers, strike force units pursue enemy forces with armored personnel carriers supported by air assets providing fire support, transportation, reconnaissance and medevac. Wherever possible, strike force personnel use helicopters to “leapfrog” the enemy and prevent his escape from pursuing forces. Superiority in night operations, engagement with maximum forces every time the enemy is encountered and the rotation of strike force frontline units enables the strike force to exhaust and confuse the enemy before completing his destruction. Territory retaken by strike force units is then turned over to conventional troops (in this case the Nigerian Army) for consolidation and occupation.[10]

Strike force ground units and their South African trainers relied on South-African made REVA (reliable, effective, versatile and affordable) armored personnel carriers. Capable of carrying ten passengers, the REVA’s V-shaped hull offers mine resistance, while two light machine guns provide firepower. The REVA is considered to be a low maintenance vehicle capable of operating in difficult conditions. Nigeria, Thailand, Yemen and Iraq are among the major export markets for the REVA.  According to South Africa’s Netwerk24, twenty of the APCs were sold to Nigeria under a contract approved by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (Netwerk24, March 11, 2015).

SA Mercs MapRisky Business

Some of the men who deployed in Nigeria would be known to ex-mercenary pilot Crause Steyl, who played a prominent role in the failed “Wonga Coup.” During the Nigerian deployment, Steyl remarked:

The South African mercenaries are giving Boko Haram a hiding. These guys are in their 50s, but for a pilot or tank driver it doesn’t really matter. There’s going to be no Boko Haram. It boggles the mind that Britain and America promised to help Nigeria but never did. But the South African government doesn’t want [the mercenaries] to exist. They wish them off the planet. When they come back from Nigeria, it will try to prosecute them and put them in jail. Because the colour of these men is white, it makes laws that stop them earning money off shore. How wrong can you be? There is now reverse racism and it’s difficult for white people to get a job (Guardian, April 14, 2015).

Indeed, financial motives appear to inspire these aging warriors more than ideology or racism. Lack of opportunity in the new South Africa is consistently cited by both black and white members of these latter-day mercenary formations and similar motives no doubt lie behind the involvement of the more reticent East European military contractors.

59-year-old Leon Lotz, a former member of Koevoet who was declared persona non grata in Namibia just prior to its independence, was the only South African known to have died by live fire during the deployment. Lotz was killed in a friendly-fire incident that occurred when a Nigerian T-72 tank opened up on a Hilux truck carrying Lotz, an East European (also killed) and a number of black Strike Force members who wer wounded. (VOA, March 20, 2015).  Another South African was reported to have died in Nigeria six weeks previously from a heart attack (Netwerk24, March 11, 2015). South Africa’s Defense Ministry used Lotz’s death to issue a warning “to others who are considering engaging in such activities to really think twice and consider the repercussions” (BBC, March 13, 2015).

South African Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned that the South African military contractors were in violation of the nation’s Foreign Military Assistance Act and could face prosecution and a possible six-year prison term on their return (Pretoria News, May 21, 2015; The Star [Johannesburg], May 21, 2015). According to the Defense Minister, herself a prominent figure in the revolutionary ANC: “They are mercenaries, whether they are training, skilling the Nigerian defence force, or scouting for them. The point is they have no business to be there” (The Guardian, April 14, 2015). Otherwise, there was a general silence from South African government figures regarding the private military deployment.

Despite their apparent success, STTEP’s contract was not renewed in March, a situation Barlow acknowledges had to do with the change in government, though the STTEP chairman maintains that much of the responsibility lies with the South African print media’s “racist mercenary” narrative: “The South African government has been fed such a false narrative by the South African media that it is possible they requested the Nigerian government not to extend the contract. The media here has tried very hard to turn this into a racial issue with the intent to create as much suspicion as possible.” Nonetheless, Barlow credits the Nigerian Army for driving back Boko Haram, describing “the strike force we trained” as a “force-multiplier in the area of operations.”[11]

To defeat such an enemy militarily, we must out-think and outsmart him by adopting tactics, techniques, and procedures that are so unexpected and unconventional that he becomes confused and loses his cohesion.[12]


The participation of South African citizens in the campaign against religious extremists in Nigeria is unlikely to have many repercussions within South Africa, where only 1.5% of the population is Muslim (mainly of ethnic-Indian origins) and few of these could be considered radicalized. Nonetheless, there were reports in May of a letter to South African Islamic scholars purportedly from South Africans who have traveled to Iraq (or possibly Syria) to join Islamic State militants. The letter arrived after public criticism of the Islamic State by prominent South African Islamic scholars and warned fellow Muslims:

You are being deceived and misguided by people claiming to have knowledge of what the Caliphate is and what is happening in the Islamic State. Firstly, let us look at the source of this information and knowledge that you are being fed… Most of it is coming from news channels and media sources that are either funded by or run exclusively by Jewish conglomerates. So a large portion of your opinions about your brothers and your state… is based on information that you attain from the enemy (News24 [Cape Town], June 14, 2015).

Several years ago it became commonly thought that the “problem” of South African mercenary activity in Africa was gradually solving itself as the former SADF members who formed the bulk of such groups were simply becoming too old for military adventuring. Though the Nigerian campaign is undoubtedly an unexpected “last hurrah” for many of these ex-SADF soldiers, their apparent success in reversing Boko Haram’s gains in Borno Province could encourage imitation in other African nations unable to deal with insurgencies.

Surprisingly, what the South African episode reveals is that the Nigerian military is entirely capable of dealing with the Boko Haram threat if provided with leadership, training and equipment. The question is whether Nigeria can sustain an offensive led by Special Forces or bog down due to systemic problems within the Nigerian military that cannot be resolved overnight. The recent counter-strikes by Boko Haram militants suggest that the latter result may be the most likely.

In the meantime, private military contractors continue to seek new battlefields while exploiting the apparent legitimization of their trade in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview, ex-Executive Outcomes director Simon Mann insisted that a 2000 man private military company could, with air and armor support, deal a decisive blow to Islamic State forces in Iraq. Basing his conclusion on the performance of the South-African trained mobile strike force in Nigeria and the success of his own Executive Outcomes combating insurgents in Angola and Sierra Leone, Mann suggests that Islamic State forces “are probably more terrifying than they are competent, and it all comes down to training and experience at the end of the day. We know that the Iraqi army were not being properly led, paid or equipped and that equates to disaster. How did anyone expect it to end? … Don’t get me wrong, [Islamic State forces] are probably very frightening up front, although I doubt they are as professionally trained as the rebels we came up against in Angola (Telegraph, June 4, 2015).


[1] Without imparting any ethical connotations to the terminology, private military contractors is probably a more accurate term for these modern “mercenaries” in that it reflects the corporate basis of these formations rather than an image of the individual freebooters that once filled mercenary ranks.

[2] See “South African Military Disaster in The Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, Washington DC, April 4, 2015, ; “South African Military Disaster in The Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2015, ;  “The South African National Defense Force – A Military In Free-fall,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013,

[3] See Piet Nortje, 32 Battalion: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Elite Fighting Unit, Zebra, 2006, pp. 8-9. This history of the unit is written from the perspective of a former regimental sergeant-major.

[4] See Adam Roberts: The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs, and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, PublicAffairs, 2007.

[5] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 2): Development of a Nigerian Strike Force,” April 6, 2015,

[6] See ; ;

[7] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 1): PMC and Nigerian Strike Force Devastates Boko Haram,” April 1, 2015,

[8] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt.4): Rejecting the Racial Narrative,” April 8, 2015,

[9] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 3): Tactics Used to Destroy Boko Haram,” April 7, 2015,

[10] Ibid

[11] Jack Murphy: “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 6): South African Contractors Withdrawal from Nigeria,” Sofrep, April 17, 2015,

[12] Ibid

Elephants Trained to Detect Explosives in South Africa

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

March 30, 2015

Though the eyesight of elephants is somewhat limited, it has long been known that the senses of smell and hearing in the elephant are exceptional, with olfactory capabilities estimated to be four times that of a bloodhound. African bush elephants have been observed avoiding heavily-mined areas in war-torn Angola, inspiring a new experiment in the use of trained elephants to detect the presence of mines and explosives. The trials are being carried out at a game ranch north of Johannesburg and are supported by the U.S. Army Research Office.

War elephants 1Chisiru, a 17-year-old male elephant, is trained to detect explosives

The elephants are trained to raise a foreleg when they detect explosives by their scent and are rewarded with a treat of marula fruit. Those involved in the training, now in its fifth year, have given assurances the elephants will not be deployed on the battlefield, but may have samples of substances brought to them by robotic devices  (Reuters, February 24; Daily Mail, February 25). Whether these experiments bear fruit in the useful deployment of bomb-sniffing pachyderms is questionable; technological means of “sniffing out” explosives are in development and do not require the provision of massive amounts of feed and expertise in elephant psychology.

War elephants 2A 3rd century representation of a Meroitic king riding an elephant. From the Lion Temple at Musawwarat, Upper Nubia

Elephants have a long history of more active use in warfare in Africa and elsewhere. Elephant training schools were established in the Nubian kingdom of Meroë and by the third century BCE, war elephants from Meroë were replacing Asian elephants in the army of Ptolemaic Egypt. These animals were Forest Elephants, a species that was once found in large numbers in north and central Africa. Smaller than the better known and much larger Bush Elephant of central and southern Africa, the Forest Elephant was easier to train, though unpredictability in battle was a constant problem.  While the elephants were used as a type of primitive tank, unlike a mechanical device they could not be turned off when they ran amok, often with devastating results for the side attempting to deploy them.

North Africa’s Carthaginian Empire deployed war elephants extensively, most notably in the Italian peninsula after Carthaginian general Hannibal achieved the seemingly impossible task of marching a corps of war elephants through the frozen and narrow passes of the Swiss Alps. Innovative Roman tactics and a requirement in all Roman peace treaties that the other party forgo all use of war elephants eliminated the battlefield threat posed by elephants in Europe and the Mediterranean region, though the military use of Indian Elephants continued in Asia into the 20th century. In the few instances where African Forest Elephants encountered the stronger and larger Indian Elephants in battle, the latter always emerged triumphant.

South Africa May Deploy SANDF Peacekeepers in Uranium Fields

Andrew McGregor

June 14, 2013

As rising insecurity in South Africa’s lucrative platinum mining sector begins to have a significant impact on the national economy, South African Labor Minister Mildred Oliphant has proposed deploying “peacekeepers” (likely drawn from the South African National Defense Force [SANDF]) to restore order.

LonminSouth African Security Forces during the Massacre at the Lonmin Mine at Marikana

South Africa’s mining industry, which represents 20 percent of the national economy and 60 percent of its exports, has been riven by assassinations and bloody battles between rival unions and security forces, all fueled by the deep involvement of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the mining sector’s labor strife. The proposal to deploy South Africa’s unionized military as an intervention force comes at a time when the SANDF is struggling to meet internal obligations and multiple foreign deployments on a shrinking budget.  The violence at the platinum mines is partly responsible for a decline in South Africa’s economic growth, which hit a new low of 0.9 percent in the first quarter of the year (AFP, June 4). Some 80 percent of the world’s platinum reserves are found in South Africa.

At the heart of much of the strife in the platinum mines is a struggle for control of unionized workers between the ANC-associated National Union of Miners (NUM) and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has made impressive inroads on the membership of the NUM, a traditional source of funding and support for the ANC.  The mining sector is the largest private employer in South Africa and many of the mining unions have, until this point, been tightly tied to the ANC. AMCU members increasingly see South Africa’s police as allies of the NUM, creating an atmosphere in which labor tension could easily degenerate into political violence.

According to Mamphela Ramphele, a former managing director of the World Bank and a former chair of Gold Fields Limited (a major South African gold mining company), the crisis in the platinum fields is exacerbated by the ANC’s alliance with the NUM, a relationship that is manifest in an NUM office doubling as the local headquarters of the ANC: “How do you become an honest broker when one of the parties is your ally? It’s very difficult to be unbiased… That for me is a violation of good governance…” (AFP, June 6). Ramphele has recently formed a new political party to challenge the ANC called Agang (“Build”).

Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu clearly identified ANC and NUM interests as identical in a May 24 speech in which she likened the pressure on the NUM to the conservative forces that destroyed the British mining unions in the Margaret Thatcher era:

You are under siege by forces determined to use every trick in the book to remove you from the face of the earth. [They want to make sure] that no progressive trade union will be permitted in the mining sector. It is only those who are willfully blind who cannot see that the agenda is to defeat and drive the African National Congress from power and reverse the gains of the national democratic revolution (Business Day [Johannesburg], May 24).

The NUM has already lost its majority status at works belonging to Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum and is now in a bitter and increasingly violent fight to retain its status at the Lonmin mines, where 70% of the workers now belong to the AMCU. With the AMCU now demanding recognition as the majority union at the Lonmin mines in Marikana and the expulsion of the NUM from local union offices, a South African labor court has given the NUM until July 16 to prove it is still the majority union or be expelled from their offices at the Lonmin works (majority status is defined as 51 percent) (AFP, June 4). AMCU leaders have complained for months that the NUM has been fraudulently listing AMCU members on NUM rosters to restore their membership and claim membership dues, a position seemingly validated by Lonmin’s June 4 announcement that it had suspended eight employees, some of them NUM shop stewards, for alleged union membership fraud (SAPA, June 5).

The AMCU’s aggressive recruitment campaign has been led by Joseph Mathunjwa, an emotional leader who frequently resorts to dramatic gestures and biblical allusions to promote his union in the face of what he regards as an alliance between the NUM and the ANC (Business Day [Johannesburg], June 7). South African platinum miners are looking for major increases in their wages and have turned to the AMCU to deliver on these demands rather than the more conservative NUM, which is perceived to be more cooperative with management. In the meantime, the turmoil in the mines has led to frequent and debilitating work stoppages.

A high-profile inquiry is ongoing in Pretoria to discover the facts behind the massacre of 23 striking mine-workers by security forces at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana on August 16, 2012. The deaths followed a week of violence that saw an additional ten people killed, including two policemen and two security guards (SAPA [Johannesburg], June 7). Testimony was heard recently from Major General William Mpembe, who was in charge of security operations at the time and has been blamed by many in the security sector for the deaths of the two policemen (SAPA [Johannesburg], June 7). Police have since been withdrawn from the Marikana region for their own safety, leaving a security vacuum in the area.

After a NUM shop steward was murdered and a NUM treasurer wounded on June 3, a spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions noted that 60 people had been killed over the last year as a consequence of disputes at the Lonmin and Impala platinum mines (SAPA [Johannesburg], June 4). The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a powerful government-allied trade union federation representing nearly two million workers, warned that the “anarchy” in the platinum mining region had created a “prevailing sense of insecurity… No one is being arrested and not a single person has been convicted for any of these [most recent] murders” (AFP, June 4).

With only three to four months left before South Africa’s major platinum producers are required to finish negotiations on new contracts for their employees, it seems essential that the dispute between the rival labor unions must be resolved quickly to avoid further violence and the possible shutdown of a large part of South Africa’s platinum-mining industry. While the deployment of “peacekeepers” from the hard-pressed SANDF may be able to put a temporary damper on the violence at the mines, it will not be able to address the union rivalry that is at the core of the crisis, particularly if they are seen as favoring the government-allied NUM. Even if the AMCU succeeds in displacing the NUM, it will have to satisfy the considerable expectations of its membership if it is to avert a NUM comeback or challenges from new labor groups claiming to be able to satisfy workers’ demands.

South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive

Andrew McGregor

April 4, 2013

While international attention focuses on efforts to deal with the fallout from Mali’s military collapse and subsequent coup, a rebellion and coup in the Central African Republic (CAR) involving some of the main actors in the Mali crisis (including France and Chad) has garnered less attention, but may have equally important implications for the future of African security efforts, particularly those relying on the declining capabilities of the South African military.

South Africa CARSouth African Dead Return

In a series of skirmishes and battles from March 22 to 24 with a large force of Seleka rebels in the CAR capital of Bangui, a force of roughly 250 South African paratroopers and Special Forces personnel suffered 13 killed and 27 wounded, putting an effective end to the South African military presence in the CAR. The number of prisoners in Seleka hands has not been confirmed, but is rumored to be as high as 40 (SAPA, March 26). In a development similar to one of the grievances that led to last year’s military coup in Mali, South African troops complained of being provided with insufficient ammunition, contributing to their losses in the fighting with rebels (SAPA, April 1). The South Africans’ heaviest weapons appear to have been rocket launchers and 107mm mortars.

The rebel attacks followed the overthrow of President François Bozize and it is believed the rebels were angered by what they perceived as the South Africans’ role in helping Bozize escape the capital. Bozize is reported to have fled to neighboring Cameroon with some members of the Presidential Guard, where he is awaiting news on which African country is prepared to shelter him. One of Seleka’s main demands prior to their capture of Bangui was for the withdrawal of the South African troops, whom they regarded as “mercenaries” preserving the rule of a corrupt ruler.

The South Africans were present in Bangui under the terms of a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding in which the SA soldiers would engage in a capacity-building mission to help the CAR with the implementation of a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process designed to absorb former rebels into the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) (Sowetan [Johannesburg], March 26). Some of the South African troops in Bangui were deployed to protect what the South African National Defense Union (SANDU), which represents South Africa’s troops, described as South African commercial interests in Bangui (Johannesburg Times, March 27).

Referring to reports that South African president Jacob Zuma ordered the deployment against the advice of Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and senior military staff who were instead urging the withdrawal of the small training mission in Bangui, Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko noted that the CAR was one of the most corrupt states in the world: “The key question that needs to be asked is: why did South Africa need to lose lives to defend this president?” (SAPA, March 27; Business Day Online [Johannesburg], March 26). The opposition has called for a “comprehensive investigation” into the debacle in Bangui, but the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has retorted that this is not the time to score “cheap political points” and has promised that South Africa “will not turn our backs when our neighboring countries need our assistance” (AFP, March 26; link2media [Johannesburg], March 27).

Chadians in CARChadian Troops in Bangui

As the rebels made their final advance on Bangui, France sent an additional 350 troops to the CAR to strengthen the existing force of 250 soldiers (mostly Legionnaires) and protect the roughly 1200 French citizens in Bangui (AFP, March 26; RFI, March 24). The rebel offensive met little resistance from FACA forces and Chadian troops based north of the capital at Damara. Bozize called on Chad for military assistance in early December, but the Chadian troops sent to the CAR did not make a stand against the southwards advance of the Seleka rebels, which was only halted when a peace agreement (the Libreville Accords) was reached in January.

It was Bozize’s failure to implement the accords, particularly the clause relating to integration of former rebels into the CAR military, that led to Seleka’s final march on Bangui. A Seleka spokesman, Colonel Christian Djouma Narkovo, said military resistance collapsed quickly after the rebels entered the capital. The Colonel added that the rebels had clashed three times with the South Africans: “We took their arms and even took prisoners. They laid down their arms and are now in their barracks.” Colonel Narkovo also asked the French and Chadian forces in the capital to assist in bringing a halt to four days of looting and related chaos in Bangui that was fueled by a power blackout and radio silence that began on March 23 (RFI, March 24). Three Chadian soldiers were reported to have been killed in the confused fighting in the capital (RFI, March 24). Two Indian nationals were killed by French troops guarding the Bangui airport when three cars approaching at high speed ignored warning shots (AFP, March 26). The fall of the Bozize government has also forced the suspension of the CAR-based hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony by the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and U.S. Special Forces teams (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 3; AFP, April 3)

Zuma’s decision to send a force of 400 men to ostensibly guard a group of 25 military trainers who could have easily been otherwise withdrawn can only be interpreted as an effort to bolster the CAR regime. In the end, only 200 troops were actually sent, though they were not provided with air support, medical services, armored personnel carriers, logistical support or an evacuation plan. Since the mission was mounted on a unilateral basis, the South Africans had no-one else to call on if things went bad. Two days after the battle in Bangui the South African Air Force put its Saab Gripen fighter-jets on standby, but the warplanes were reported to lack the weapons needed to carry out an attack (SAPA, March 26). The remaining South African contingent in Bangui remains under French protection in a barracks near the Bangui Airport, where they await an extraction mission by the South African Air Force.

This article was first published in the April 4, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout

Andrew McGregor

April 4, 2013

The motivation of South African president Jacob Zuma for the South African military deployment in Bangui is uncertain; as a South African business website points out, the Central African Republic (CAR) is outside South Africa’s economic sphere of influence as it belongs to the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS – chaired by Chadian president Idris Déby) rather than the South African Development Community. Trade between the two nations is virtually non-existent though rumors of South African mining interests in the CAR persist (Business Day Online, March 26).

Martin ZigueleMartin Ziguele

According to CAR opposition leader Martin Ziguele, the head of the Movement for the Liberation of Central African People (MLCAP):

President Jacob Zuma was dragged along into this wasp’s nest mostly by South African businessmen, who were naturally interested in mining activities in Central Africa. They truly dragged President Zuma into, it should be said, a trap. Because all countries in the sub-region had more intimate knowledge than South Africa on Central Africa’s political realities and the conditions for a real exit from the crisis (RFI, March 26).

On March 28, a Johannesburg daily published the detailed results of an investigation into South African business connections with the CAR that began at the same time as the signing of the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding regarding defense, minerals and energy that called, in part, for the establishment of a South African military mission in Bangui. The report identified the involvement of a number of high-ranking ANC security and intelligence figures and ANC investment front Chancellor House in an effort to dominate the CAR’s diamond-mining industry. The initiative was arranged by a well-known and controversial “fixer,” Didier Pereira, a business partner of senior ANC security figures Paul Langa and Billy Masetlha, a former head of the South African National Intelligence Agency (NIA) (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], March 28). An ANC statement denied the allegations, claiming the Mail & Guardian was “pissing on the graves of gallant fighters who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our continent” (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 1).

It is possible that Bozize’s growing ties with South Africa irritated Chadian president Idris Déby, who had played a major role in installing Bozize as president and had provided his personal bodyguard force until they were withdrawn last December. Bozize has claimed that the attack on the South Africans was led by “Chadian special forces” (BBC, April 3). A force of roughly 400 Chadian troops forms part of the Mission de consolidation de la paix en République Centrafricaine (MICOPAX), an international force drawn from Chad, Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10, 2013). South African defense analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman has noted that “the attacking force was far different from the “rag tag” rebel force originally reported: Most of them in standardized uniforms with proper webbing and with flak jackets, new AK47s and heavy weapons up to 23mm cannons.  It was also clear that many were not from the CAR, some speaking with Chad accents and others having distinctly Arabic features” (Sunday Independent, March 31).

Seleka RebelsSeleka Rebels (AFP)

Shortly before his overthrow, Bozize suggested the rebellion was an externally-fueled attempt to control the CAR’s growing oil industry, alleging the involvement of maverick American oilman Jack Grynberg, who sued the CAR government after his exploration license in the northwestern CAR was revoked by Bozize (Jeune Afrique, October 14, 2011).

Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, a Russian trained economist who lived in the Soviet Union for 14 years, has denied rumors that Seleka was supported by Chad, Gabon or Congo-Brazzaville, saying that it was “simply misery that pushed us into taking up arms” (RFI, March 25). SANDU, the soldiers’ union, has insisted that the South African government has a legal duty to arrange for an ICC indictment of Djotodia after the bodies of child soldiers were discovered among the large numbers of dead rebels after the battle in Bangui (SAPA, April 1) There are signs that Djotodia is settling in for the long-term as the CAR’s ruler; though he has pledged to hold elections in 2016 (when Bozize’s term would have expired), he has also noted: “I did not say that I would hand over power. I said that in three years I will organize free and transparent elections with everyone’s support” (RFI, March 25).

Under heavy pressure from the media and political opposition, South African president Jacob Zuma reversed his intention to keep the battered South African force in the CAR and announced on April 4 that the South African military mission would be withdrawn (AFP, April 4). France may have played a role in the decision by preventing the deployment of a stronger South African force for fear it may lead to an attack on the Bangui airport or French interests in the city (Sunday Independent, March 31). The opposition had called for the withdrawal of a force that was “deployed to defend particular economic interests near the capital on behalf of a corrupt, authoritarian and unpopular government” (Business Day Online [Johannesburg], March 25).

South Africa has traditionally been one of the largest contributors to peacekeeping operations in Africa, with current SANDF deployments in Darfur and the Kivu region of the DRC. Though the South African military remains woefully underfunded, the ANC government continues to use it as an instrument of foreign policy and a means of establishing regional influence. While the South African opposition is demanding the recall of the badly damaged and still unsupported military mission in Bangui, there are rumors that the South African military may now be planning a retaliation in order to defend the reputation and future safety of SANDF troops, potentially expanding a conflict whose true motives are known only to the senior South African leadership. The struggle for control of the CAR is further evidence of the growing military and political influence of Chad in Africa, working at times (as in Mali) in partnership with France. The current decline of South Africa and Nigeria as Africa’s military powerhouses also suggests major shifts are ongoing in Africa’s regional balance of power.

This article was first published in the April 4, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.


The South African National Defense Force: A Military in Freefall

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2013

Despite an eagerness to use the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) as an means of projecting the nation’s influence abroad, there is evidence that South Africa’s government has so neglected or mismanaged its military assets that it may soon be unable to defend itself, much less engage in international adventures.

South African TroopsSouth African Troops in the Central African Republic

Laat year, Roelf Meyer, the chairman of South Africa’s defense review committee, identified a number of strategic goals for the SANDF, including:

  • Maintaining the security of South Africa’s borders
  • Promoting peace and security in Africa
  • Assisting civil authorities in policing or anti-poaching efforts
  • Establishing South Africa as a responsible leading member of the African Union
  • Responding to new regional threats such as piracy (Business Day [Johannesburg], April 13, 2012).

However, with a reduced force size and inadequate resources, the SANDF will soon have difficulty meeting most of these goals. The SANDF is already estimated to be three battalions short of what it requires to meet current commitments (Johannesburg Star, January 9).  Defense spending is now 1.2 % of GDP, shy of the IMF’s recommended 2%, and there are no plans to increase it.

Considering the current restraints on SANDF, the president’s decision to deploy a reinforced paratroop company of some 400 men to the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this month took many by surprise, not least because of the president’s failure to inform parliament of the deployment and the costs involved as he is required to do by the South African constitution (Johannesburg Star, January 8; for the intervention in the CAR, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10). The South African force was chartered into the CAR due to a lack of operable transport aircraft.

Prior to the CAR deployment, SANDF already had nearly 2,000 personnel active on peacekeeping and training missions in Darfur, the CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Some 1,200 South African troops were amongst the 1,500 man UN peacekeeping force (the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo – MONUSCO)  that was heavily criticized in November for allowing a few hundred rebels to take the Congolese city of Goma with little fighting (See Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2012). With a total strength of over 19,000 and a budget of over $1.4 billion annually, MONUSCO is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping force in the world (Daily Monitor [Kampala], December 29, 2012).

Life in the South African military is not seen as desirable by many potential recruits. Pay can be erratic, HIV rates are as high as 25% (making these troops unavailable for external deployment) and an estimated 35% of South Africa’s military barracks have been classed as unfit for human occupation since 2007 (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 21, 2012).  Without money to operate sophisticated equipment, skilled staff continue to flee at the end of their enlistment and there is little opportunity for new recruits to train in skills useful in the civilian world. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defense has described abuse of women in the SANDF as “common,” adding that many female recruits have been impregnated by their instructors (BUAnews, November 26, 2011). Racial abuse of black subordinates by white senior officers also remains a problem 19 years into the integration process (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], August 21, 2011). South African troops are unionized and have at times clashed with police during pay disputes.

With the 2012 defense budget of $3.8 billion still far below the 2% of GDP required to maintain the armed forces, the South African defense department began looking at ways of generating income, including contracting out soldiers to municipalities to do various labor and infrastructure repair projects. The department also created the Defense Estate Management agency to lease or sell-off defense department lands. Much of the land owned by the SANDF came by way of British government endowments of military facilities made on the condition that they could only be used for defense purposes (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 21, 2012).

There has also been a temptation to use the military as a well-armed police force to suppress labor unrest and gang activity. Considerable controversy was generated last year when President Jacob Zuma deployed 1000 SANDF troops to aid police in disarming striking Lonmin miners following a massacre by police (Johannesburg Times, September 21, 2012; SAPA, September 16).  Western Cape premier Helen Zille issued a request for troops to fight “emergency levels” of gang violence in Cape Town in July (AFP, July 10, 2012).  By late November, there were calls for the army to be sent to rural areas of the Western Cape to prevent violence by striking farmworkers (SAPA, November 28, 2012).

Sending the SANDF into the streets of South Africa damaged President Zuma’s credibility as the South African Development Community (SADC) facilitator in neighboring Zimbabwe, where he has urged that Zimbabwean troops be confined to barracks. According to the state-run Daily Mail, if South African presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj “thinks he will be able to still come here and continue mindlessly preaching about keeping the army in the barracks as part of President Zuma’s mediation, then he does not take himself seriously” (New Zimbabwe, September 24, 2012).

Politicization of the military is still a problem in South Africa. There has been speculation that the current chief of the SANDF, Angolan-trained Lieutenant General Solly Zacharia Shoke, received his appointment as a result of his history as a commander in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing (SAPA, May 11, 2011). Umkhonto we Sizwe forces were integrated into the newly formed SANDF between 1994 and 2004. An investigative commission recently declared that the SANDF was too politicized, a situation typified by former Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s preference for wearing SANDF uniforms at public occasions (SAPA, April 28, 2011).

A sometimes unaccountable procurement process remains a problem for the South African military; last year the political opposition revealed over $7.75 billion had passed through a defense department slush fund that had failed to reveal to parliament how the money had been spent (Johannesburg Times, April 18, 2012). The army has been overlooked in recent acquisition programs and is close to finding itself equipped with obsolete equipment in terms of armored personnel carriers, logistics vehicles and main battle tanks (Financial Mail [Johannesburg], October 21, 2012).

During the years of sanctions, South Africa developed a competitive and innovative defense industry. Since then a somewhat diminished defense industry has survived domestic cutbacks by turning to the export trade. Now, however, once innovative designs are becoming dated while research and development funding is drying up, threatening a once profitable industry that was a reliable employer of skilled labor (Financial Mail [Johannesburg], October 21, 2012).

South Africa’s once-effective air force has new aircraft but cannot afford the fuel and maintenance needed to keep them in the air. Despite this, one element of the air force that did see extensive time in the air was Squadron 21, charged with flying South African VIPs and government ministers. Former defense minister Lindiwe Sisilu booked 203 flights over three years in chartered luxury Gulfstream jets at an estimated cost of $4.5 million. Some 63 of the flights were empty, as they were intended solely to pick the minister up somewhere and take her to another destination in what one opposition critic described as “a staggering waste of money” (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], November 9, 2012).

In 2012, President Zuma decided the Boeing Business Jet purchased by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, for $66 million in 2001, was no longer good enough for presidential travel. Controversy erupted when it was learned the defense department had been instructed to purchase two Boeing 767s for Zuma’s exclusive use, two Boeing 737s for the exclusive use of his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe and two smaller business jets for former presidents and government ministers. Following the predictable uproar, the SANDF leased two executive jets from a Nigerian charter company at a cost of $88 million over five years (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 8, 2012; Johannesburg Star, October 19).

While government ministers travel in luxury, the South African Air Force (SAAF) still transports troops in 70-year-old Dakota aircraft. One of these, a Dakota C47TP (an upgraded DC-3 with turbine engines) crashed last December, claiming 11 lives when it was unable to fly above inclement weather. The crash came shortly after the military decided it could no longer afford a maintenance contract for its military aircraft (SAPA, December 6, 2012; Sunday Times [Johannesburg], December 10, 2012). World War II-era Dakotas also continue to be used for surveillance of South Africa’s 3,900 kilometer coastline in the absence of modern surveillance aircraft (Sunday Times [Johannesburg], April 18, 2012). Meanwhile, 26 new Swedish-built Gripen fighter-jets, purchased at a cost of R10 billion, average only two hours in the air each week; not enough to keep the machines in operable condition and far from the 10 hours of flight-time each week considered necessary to keep pilots well-trained (Sunday Times [Johannesburg], December 10, 2012).

Former SAAF chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano retired in 2012 after trying to resign in late 2011 during his hospitalization for stress as he continued to try unsuccessfully to find enough money for the fuel and maintenance to keep the SAAF in the air. His successor, Lieutenant General Fabian Zimpande Msimang (the first black chief of the SAAF) will have trouble keeping all but executive travel jets in the air if current funding problems continue.

The once formidable South African navy now spends little time at sea. Replacement parts and maintenance budgets barely exist, leaving only one of the navy’s four new frigates operational and only one its four new submarines able to put out to sea (Sunday Times [Johannesburg], December 10, 2012). South African Navy ships and SAAF aircraft carry out anti-piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel, though this mission is also threatened by underfunding.

Despite economic troubles and a collapsing military, South Africa still desires to be a major player in Africa, which encourages it to commit to missions that stretch the military’s capacity to breaking point.  Unless current trends are reversed, the steady transformation of the SANDF into an assembly of riot police and border guards will be completed in just a few years. Geography and reputation have left South Africa with few external enemies, but it is also extremely wealthy in various resources. South Africa was only cobbled together from various constituent parts a little more than a century ago, and it would not be surprising if a general collapse of South Africa’s security infrastructure invited the emergence of secessionist movements drawing on both domestic and external inspiration. South Africa’s eventual inability to project force beyond its borders will also have important implications for regional security in sub-Saharan Africa.

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.