Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Swartkop airforce base in Pretoria to mourn the death of 13 South African soldiers who were killed in action by rebels in the Central Africa Republic.
Relatives of the dead, members of the armed forces and politicians gathered at the Swartkop airforce base in Pretoria on Tuesday 2 April, 2013 to pay tribute to 13 South African soldiers who were killed in action last month by rebels in the Central Africa Republic (CAR). President Jacob Zuma praised the soldiers for displaying bravery in defense of peace in Africa. However, the death of the soldiers in a foreign country has divided public opinion. Zuma's administration is accused of deploying the soldiers there to protect the ruling ANC party's business interests but the president has dismissed those allegations.
South Africa first deployed military personnel to the Central African Republic in 2007 to provide training for the CAR army. More soldiers were sent to protect the trainers early this year when fighting erupted between the CAR defense forces and rebels.
Ambushed at night
The South African soldiers were killed and 27 others were wounded as rebels advanced to take control of the country's capital, Bangui, which they siezed on March 24. Major Steven Jiyane was the commander in charge of the South African soldiers. He told mourners in Pretoria that the fighting was intense. "It was then on our way back, in the dark hours, that we met the fatal ambush that took 13 of the best South African soldiers who were under my command," he said.
In his address to mourners, President Jacob Zuma praised the fallen soldiers for paying "the supreme sacrifice for the achievement of peace in Africa. Our national servicemen died for a worthy cause. They died in defense of the country's foreign policy."
Thembisile Jilima, who spoke on behalf of the bereaved families, expressed appreciation for the assistance the families were getting from the government. He called on the whole nation to pay their respects to the dead soldiers.
"We (...) request that the dignity that these fallen heroes deserve should be forwarded to them by the media and the communities in our country and outside our country."
South Africa's motives questioned
However, the death of the soldiers in a foreign country has divided political and public opinion in South Africa. The country's largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), insists that the deployment was not justified.The party wants President Zuma to withdraw the remaining soldiers in CAR with immediate effect.
A South African newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, widened the division by alleging that the soldiers were sent to CAR to protect the business interests of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The ANC has dismissed the allegations as unfounded.
"We reject any insinuation that these soldiers were sent to CAR for any reason other than in the pursuit of national interests and the interests of the African continent," President Zuma said.
"Unfortunately there are those who have decided to use this period of mourning to try and dishonor the memory of our heroes by peddling various unfounded allegations and conspiracy theories," he said in his memorial speech.
Mail & Guardian editor in chief Nic Dawes said before the memorial service that the paper stood by the article in question which was "based on documentary evidence and on-the-record sources."
President Zuma says his government is currently assessing the situation in consultation with the African Union before arriving at a concrete decision over whether South African soldiers should still deployed in the Central African Republic.
An extraordinary summit meeting of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) is due to be held on Wednesday (03.04.2013) to discuss the situation.