South Africa heads off to fight Rwandan-backed forces in the Congo

SADC has pledged R10 billion (mostly from SA) to send new brigades to fight the M23 rebels in the mineral-rich Kivu provinces. South African mining interests complicate matters.

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Jan 25, 2024

South Africa heads off to fight Rwandan-backed forces in the Congo

General Rudzani Maphwanya, Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), has announced a significant military commitment to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Addressing attendees at the December service held at the Thaba Tshwane sports grounds, General Maphwanya declared that South Africa would be taking over the UN’s peacekeeping operation in the Congo.

He boasted of South Africa’s role in mediating conflicts, citing efforts to mitigate the Ukraine/Russia conflict and advocate for Palestine at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But he may be digging South Africa a hole which we may struggle to climb out of.

SANDF in the DRC

The General asserted that if diplomatic resolutions were not successful, South Africa stood prepared to deploy its soldiers.

South Africa was one of the first countries to deploy peacekeeping forces in the Congo in 2000, to stem an outbreak of warfare between various forces in the mineral-rich Kivu provinces.

South African forces are also actively participating in Mozambique as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), though private military companies run by South Africans feature more prominently there.

General Maphwanya asserted that there would be intensified efforts, following the establishment of the SADC Mission in DRC (SAMIDRC), which received approval during the May summit in Windhoek, Namibia, although the strength and organisational details of the deployment have not yet been disclosed.

Kivu conflict - Wikipedia

A draft budget of $55 million (R10 billion) was approved during the Namibia summit in May for the deployment of a "brigade plus" force. This force is expected to possess critical maritime, air, and artillery support capabilities, along with logistic support and a quick reaction force, among other capabilities. The deployment is anticipated to occur in the coming weeks, as confirmed by MONUSCO Chief Bintou Keita in a statement to the UN Security Council. The exact deployment date, however, remains undisclosed for security reasons, according to an unnamed senior SADC official.

While organisational details have not yet been ironed out, an advance team of South African troops arrived in Goma, DRC, this week as part of the SADC deployment.

This initiative comes on the heels of the East African Community (EAC) withdrawing its reaction force after a year-long presence in the eastern DRC, and the dissolution of the UN coordination team. Stephanie Wolters, a fellow at the SA Institute of International Studies (SAIIS), highlighted the disadvantage for the Southern African regional force with the departure of on-the-ground intelligence from MONUSCO's Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which comprises personnel from Malawi, South Africa, and Tanzania, all SADC member states.

According to foreign affairs correspondent Peter Fabricius, SAMIDRC's primary objective is evidently to counter and neutralize the M23 armed group, which is allegedly backed by Rwanda.

This could effectively place South Africa, the effective hegemon of the SADC bloc, in an expensive proxy war with Rwanda and Uganda, at a time when the South African government is facing economic stagnation and the evaporation of its manufacturing base, and without the intelligence services of the former MONUSCO peacekeeping force.

But lack of professionalism is par for the course, as this year, eight South African soldiers involved in a UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are accused of widespread sexual misconduct.

The issue came to a head after the soldiers reportedly ignored a curfew and visited a bar known for prostitution. When UN military police officers attempted to assess the situation, they were physically attacked and threatened by the soldiers.

SANDF expresses regret that it learned about the allegations from the media, emphasizing the serious nature of the accusations. But it is known to be quite common for issues affecting the SANDF to reach media before members of the department or its oversight committee hear of it.

Why is the Congo at war?

The eastern provinces of the DRC have been mired in an interminable conflict for nearly 30 years. It centres around an ethnic grudge between Hutus and Tutsis, and to a lesser extent, several vital mineral deposits, including tin, gold, diamonds and coltan (tantalum ore -vital for industrial manufacturing and modern electronics). It also borders the main lakes used for trade in the region.

The story begins in 1960, when the Belgian authorities, who had backed the Tutsi minority government up until that point, switched sides and backed Hutu majoritarian forces in the name of liberation.

The “liberation” forces cleansed around 100 000 Tutsi from Rwanda, who fled into neighbouring Uganda and DRC, where they quickly advanced in the civil service, military and private sectors.

When they were young men, current Rwandan president Paul Kagame joined current Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in a rebel militia in northern Kenya, which later launched a revolution in Uganda to replace Milton Obote. Tutsi exiles formed a great part of the Ugandan military.

Back home, Tutsis had land confiscated, and were barred from exceeding certain hiring quotas in companies and civil service positions.

After an anti-immigrant uprising in Uganda, Museveni allowed Kagami and the Rwandan troops to abscond over the border with significant military hardware, where they set about a military campaign to retain their rights.

The brief conflict resulted in the Arusha power-sharing accords, but after only a few short years, the Hutu president Habyarimana was assassinated (some say by Hutu radicals, some say by Kagame’s RPF) when his plane was shot down.

This triggered a massive civil war in which French-supplied machetes, grenades and firearms were used to butcher just shy of a million Tutsi in just three months. But Kagame won, and took power, erasing documentation of Hutu and Tutsi identity, and forming a new Rwanda under authoritarian control.

After the genocide of 1994, Hutu forces were pushed out into neighbouring DRC, among 1.5 million refugees. The Hutu genocidaires began attacking local Congolese Tutsi tribes, known as the Banyamulenge, and re-arming with the intent of re-entering Rwanda.

Mobuto Sese Seko, the then-ruler of Zaïre (now DRC), supplied these rebels with arms, and encouraged then to prepare for an invasion of Rwanda.

Rwanda began their own interventions, intending to pacify the Kivu provinces and neuter the threat. Kivo clashes escalated, and Rwanda and Uganda teamed up to support Laurent Kabila as a replacement for Mobuto as head of the Congo.

Since Mobuto was supported by UNITA, this dragged in the Angolan government, who feared re-armament of their civil war enemy. Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania and Ethiopia joined the pro-Rwandan faction, as France funnelled support to Mobuto through the Central African Republic and China and Isreal provided technical assistance. The USA took Rwanda’s side. Tutsis from inside the Zaire government aligned with the invaders.

The war took millions of lives, and severely damaged the economies of most African participants. Mobuto’s loyalists went on to start a civil war in the neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

But once in power, Kabila had to realign his support. Rwanda, which took in a large amount of refugees, now found themselves beset by Hutu rebels in their western provinces, and without a presence in the Kivus, could not cut off their support. So they supported Banyamulnge rebels in the Kivus in 1998 to fix this problem.  

Kabila had recently become a member of SADC, which binds its members to a mutual security pact, drawing in South Africa and its neighbours once again, now against Rwanda.

In 2000, the UN sent a peacekeeping force under French command, but a year later, Kabila was assassinated. Robert Mugabe assisted his son Joseph Kabila in rigging the election to succeed him, and benefitted from extracting minerals in the Kivus under SADC control, while Rwanda and Uganda exploited their own territories.

Thabo Mbeki managed a peace agreement in 2002 after Rwandan forces started to split, some joining the DRC government.

Conflicts simmered on and off for the next decade, but the lines of allegiance had been drawn - the Rwanda-Uganda alliance vs South Africa and SADC.

Today, Rwanda’s main proxy is the the M23, or “March 23rd movement”, an ethnic Tutsi military force composed of former DRC military personnel, who rebelled in 2012, and broke away from the national army in protest of low pay and poor working conditions.

A UN report implicated Rwanda in creating and commanding M23, but Rwanda withdrew support due to international pressure and military defeat in 2013.

In 2017, a faction of M23 led by Sultani Makenga, resumed insurgency followed by a larger offensive in 2022. They agreed to a ceasefire on November 25, 2022, following their advance towards Goma, prompting further displacement of the local population.

As a consequence of the military and economic alliances of the past 20 years, the conservative governments of Uganda and Rwanda have been at constant loggerheads with South Africa.

South African-Rwandan relations

In 2021, when Rwandan President Kagame, as AU chair, convened a meeting urging the DRC Constitutional Court to suspend declaring Félix Tshisekedi as the election winner, alleging vote rigging, Ramaphosa and Namibia's Geingob opposed the motion.

Kagame had support from Angola, Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Chad, but Ramaphosa and Geingob resisted, seeing it as interference in the DRC's autonomy.

Both Kagame and Pretoria faced accusations of hypocrisy. Kagame's intervention in the name of democracy was questioned, while Pretoria's support for Tshisekedi was seen as overlooking Kabila's influence.

Despite the ad hoc summit's call, the DRC Constitutional Court confirmed Tshisekedi's victory, preempting Kagame's planned delegation visit the next day.

The incident highlights underlying tensions between South Africa and Rwanda, with conflicting interests and approaches in regional diplomatic matters. But other issues also disrupt the two nations’ relations.

Rwanda has been accused of assassinating opposition figures on South African soil. Incidents include the 2010 assassination attempt on former Rwandan army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa and a 2014 break-in, leading to diplomatic expulsions from both nations.

In 2021, Seif Bamporiki, 49, a Rwandan opposition figure and coordinator for the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) in South Africa, was assassinated in Cape Town while delivering furniture in Nyanga, much like the 2013 New Years’ Eve killing of former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya.

As a result, Rwandan diplomats were expelled. However, there were subsequent attempts to normalise relations.

Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta suggested in 2021 that South Africa and Rwanda collaborate to in peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts Mozambique and the Central African Republic, proposing a bilateral collaboration project.

Acknowledging past strained relations, Rwanda emphasised their potential role in resolving issues, and Naledi Pandor made positive comments about the two regional powers’ potential for building bridges and shaping issues on the continent.

Yet only a month later, Amnesty International's Pegasus Project revealed evidence suggesting that President Cyril Ramaphosa, along with 13 other heads of state, may have been subjected to surveillance by Rwanda, using a spyware platform called Pegasus, developed by Israeli company NSO.

Pegasus spyware was central to the investigation. Through a leaked list of 50,000 potential surveillance targets, it appears Ramaphosa was selected for surveillance by Rwanda in 2019, potentially straining diplomatic relations further.

Uganda also received a number of refugees from the Hutu brigades, the presence of which has been a sticking point for the former brothers-in-arms. South Africa has made a point of pursuing pro-active friendly relations with Uganda in recent years, likely adding to tensions, which risk isolating Kigali.

South African commercial interests in the Congo

Standard Bank has recently initiated massive investments into the Eastern Congo. As CEO of Standard Bank's corporate and investment banking (CIB) unit Kenny Fihla put it,

"It's not just about renewable energy projects, it's about where the minerals needed to drive the transition will come from. We are likely to see that, in the next five years or so, the DRC will be one of the most important countries within the Standard Bank group. If, of course, you do not have a major blowout of either the politics, or absolutely crazy regulation changes, and so on. If they just stay the course, I think the DRC will be one of our largest geographies.”

While this is interesting on its own, it follows the more significant influx of South African mining investment from last year. The South African Department of Trade, Industry and Competition is one of the biggest contributors to the annual DRC Mining Week.

While press releases from this year have been somewhat lacking in detail, last year’s event in Lubumbashi from June 1–3 loudly boasted of a massive increase in South African presence, including 20 specialized firms in mining technologies, engineering, and services.

The official South African pavilion last year included several specialist companies such as Blot Engineering and Supplies, Hall Longmore Infrastructure, and Weba South Africa. but also notably Louis Watum, President of the Chamber of Mines in the DRC, and Amedeo Anniciello, CEO of Standard Bank’s DRC branch.

DRC Mining Week enjoys strong support from industry leaders like Equity BCDC, Orange, and Standard Bank, with sponsors including ERG Africa, FBN Bank, Glencore, and Vodacom Business.

While the Congo has a lot of copper and cobalt, the main strategic minerals originating from the country, these are located further south. Cobalt is a critical mineral for lithium-ion batteries, and is essential in the manufacturing of electronic devices and electric vehicles. And the DRC is the world's biggest cobalt producer, with estimated untapped deposits of various minerals estimated at $24 trillion.

The tantalum, tin, gold and diamonds in Kivu may be important, but South Africa does not need to directly control these to gain access to lucrative investment - security guarantees can be exchanged as a quid pro quo. Access could be very lucrative, but may also depend on defending the stability of the incumbent regime. While the South African economy does not perform very well as a whole, our mineral extraction expertise is still world-class, and has been approached by Saudi Arabia for diversifying their mining sector in the past year.

The 12th Session of the DRC-SA Binational Commission in July highlighted the significance of the bilateral relationship. Ramaphosa said that he intends South Africa and the DRC to lead in processing African raw materials on the continent to foster industrialization, with a host of bilateral trade opportunities, including the food industry, critical raw materials for green industries, mining equipment, telecommunications, banking, retail, and electric vehicle battery manufacturing.

President Ramaphosa invited the DRC to make investments on our side too, setting a target of raising R2 trillion in new investment over the next five years, extending an invitation to Congolese businesses to participate in the South Africa Investment Conference in March next year. The next Joint Bilateral Working Committee will be hosted by South Africa before the end of 2023.

Where we stand now

At present, it is important to note that the current president Félix Tshisikedi, is a Western ally, and despite hailing from the anti-Mabuto faction of the old Congo wars, opposed and defeated Kabila at the 2018 elections.

He immediately set about reversing Chinese mining contracts and distancing the DRC from Russia overtures for security services, adding Western-style green policies like combating deforestation to increase its appeal to Western international agencies.

In the recent elections, Tshisikedi has also run on a promise to invade Rwanda. While this kind of bluster is often hollow, should it occur, South Africa would be dragged into a conflict it simply cannot afford.

Right now, South Africa appears to be acting as a third power. Standard Bank is partially owned by Chinese interests, and South Africa is member of BRICS. But our presence in Western international institutions and Western-heavy trade balance make us a transitional node in the international balance of forces.

This makes the DRC's recent invitation to SADC a significant one, as it could both protect Western interests, while opening the door to China, providing a powerful middleman negotiating position.

On the other hand, SADC might not have what it takes to secure control.

The peacekeepers tasked with keeping the M23 rebels in line in recent years has been the East African Community (EAC). But this is complicated by the fact that the EAC includes both the DRC and Rwanda. Peacekeepers have been accused of deferring to the M23 in the field.

This is likely a major motive in the DRC pivoting to extend their invitation to SADC, as the UN peacekeepers wind down their deployments in the face of Western budget constraints.

The mission now is not “peacekeeping”, but routing out the M23 rebels and other Rwandan proxies.

But SADC will now become mired in a conflict in a vast and difficult territory far from its borders, facing off against forces backed by members of the EAC, which outnumber them and have logistical advantages, being that they border the Kivu provinces directly.

The conflict also contains added risks, as many of the local forces backed by the DRC wish to exterminate Banyamulenge and drive them out, creating security risks for Rwanda, and threatening their co-ethnics in the DRC.

The anti-Rwandan sentiment among DRC elites makes the regime at least partially dependent on showing force to maintain legitimacy.

This intersection of globally vital mining interests and existential security risks for Rwandan people thus now ties into the need for elite survival in the Kabila regime.

While the initial expenditure for the mission runs to R10 billion, this could soon balloon out of control, and South Africa’s economy is not exactly in a good place right now.

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