Congo-Kinshasa: What Are the South Africans Doing in Eastern DRC?


Unlike the SADC contingent that defeated the M23 back in 2013, the SAMIDRC force's tentative approach to the spreading conflict is raising questions about South Africa's real motives in mineral-rich Congo-K.

Four years into a protracted war between the DRC and the Rwandan supported M23 rebel group, the eastern DRC is flooded with national, regional, and international military actors. Aside from the Congolese army, there are Burundian troops deployed under a bilateral military agreement with the DRC; Ugandan troops fighting alongside the Congolese army against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF); French and Romanian mercenaries hired by the Congolese government; a coalition of Congolese armed groups opportunistically allied with Kinshasa against the M23; Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) clandestinely supporting the M23; and UN peacekeepers deployed with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). Into this hypermilitarised environment, SADC has deployed its own regional force: the SADC Mission in the DRC, composed of South African, Tanzanian, and Malawian troops. Since December 2023, SAMIDRC has been very slowly building up its force, which is supposed to count a full complement of 4,800 troops when fully deployed. Five months into the mission, less than 1000 troops are on the ground.

SADC first announced its intention to deploy to the DRC in May 2023. At the time, another regional force - the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), composed of troops from Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, and Burundi - had been on the ground in eastern DRC for six months. Despite Kinshasa's approval of the EACRF deployment, the Congolese government and the EAC soon disagreed about the force's mandate. Kinshasa argued that EACRF had an offensive mandate to track down and forcibly disarm the M23 rebels, while EACRF argued that it was deployed to stabilize the situation and assist with maintaining a ceasefire - not to actively pursue the rebels. As the dispute evolved, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi started to look elsewhere for allies who would support him in his battle against the M23 and Rwanda; enter South Africa and SADC.

For the Congolese government, SAMIDRC had several advantages over EACRF: SADC's analysis of the conflict clearly recognized Rwanda's role and its support to the M23 - something which the East African Community, of which Rwanda is a member, never acknowledged. SADC also stated that SAMIDRC would have an offensive mandate and actively try to defeat the M23. Both elements were important political victories for Tshisekedi's government in May 2023. There was significant popular dissatisfaction with EACRF and the fact that its deployment has not changed the situation on the ground in North Kivu, and the country was headed towards presidential elections in December. Tshisekedi had built his re-election campaign around ending the M23 crisis, and he needed to start delivering results.

It is less clear what motivated SADC and South Africa specifically to get involved in a mission which its own estimates place at an annual cost of $500 million. South African government officials explain that the SADC Mutual Defense Pact obliges SADC to assist a member state when it faces an external military aggression. But given the costs involved, it is hard to believe that this is the only motivation. The South African government has already come under scrutiny over its choice to spend $100 million to fund the deployment, at a time when the country is facing multiple serious domestic crises. And while the Congolese government says it is covering $200 million of the $500 million annual cost, that still leaves a hole of $200 million for just the first year of SAMIDRC's deployment. The funding issue is clearly undermining the mission already: by May 2024, only 1000 troops had been deployed, amidst reports that conditions for SAMIDRC troops in the field are inadequate for a successful operation.

In addition to facing serious operational challenges, the deployment has also raised the ire of Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. South Africa and Rwanda have a history of poor relations, ever since the Kigali sent hit squads to South Africa to eliminate political dissidents to whom South Africa had granted political asylum. In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in early April, Kagame criticised South Africa for not informing Rwanda of its plans to deploy to the eastern DRC. Before that, Rwanda had sent official communication to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the African Union Peace and Security Council (AU-PSC) calling the SAMIDRC deployment an act of aggression and urging both bodies not to endorse the mission. Rwanda's diplomatic efforts failed, however and both the UN and the AU have given SAMIDRC the green light, paving the way for the mission to request international funding.

Kagame appears to feel threatened by the SAMIDRC deployment; even if the force is not up to its full capacity, it is fighting on the Congolese side and cannot be influenced by Rwanda in the way the East African force could. There is also the fact that Rwanda's neighbour, Tanzania chose to deploy with SADC and not the EAC, of which it is also a member. Burundi is another hostile neighbor with whom Kigali is currently at odds. Burundi accuses Kigali of supporting anti-government rebels and is fighting against the M23 alongside the Congolese army, while Uganda, considered Kigali's elder sibling and with whom it has a long and often turbulent history, is also currently more closely aligned to Kinshasa.

Kagame and Ramaphosa held bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Rwandan Genocide commemorations in April. Very little has filtered out from the meeting, but Kagame reportedly asked South Africa not to proceed with its deployment, while South Africa asked Rwanda to stop supporting the M23. It seems very unlikely that either country will heed the other's request given what is at stake for both: Rwanda's long-term battle for control of eastern DRC, and the independence and credibility of South Africa's foreign policy.

That said, South Africa's decision to participate in SAMIDRC is not only financially costly and uncertain, the chaos on the ground could also have a negative impact on South Africa and SAMIDRC's reputation. The Congolese government's decision to formalise a coalition with Congolese armed groups - known as the Wazalendo, Kiswahili for "patriots" - to fight the M23 means that SAMIDRC is now in a de facto coalition with fundamentally rogue non-state armed actors, many of whom are accused of human rights violations and involvement in the illicit economy. And while they may have the same enemy as the Congolese government, they are not under the Congolese army's control. Burundi too has its own agenda, fighting with the Congolese but also pursuing its own economic and security priorities.

If SAMIDRC is to become a positive element in ending the conflict in the eastern DRC, a priority must be to get it to full troop strength. This means finding the money to pay for the deployment sooner rather than later. At the moment, the M23 is continuing to gain ground, while SAMIDRC makes little to no difference to the military situation. This could spark disagreements between SADC and the DRC government over SADC's commitments. Tshisekedi, who rules out talks with the M23, is desperate to get the military upper hand, and if SADC doesn't meet his expectations, it cannot be ruled out that he will discard it the way he discarded the EAC. Ultimately, though, a more balanced military situation is only useful in driving the warring parties to the negotiating table; the long-term resolution to this conflict is political.

Stephanie Wolters is a Senior Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs and a Director of Okapi Consulting.

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