The Evolving Policy of South Africa in the DRC

As South Africa heads to its very important general elections next month, recent words from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa signal a potential change in South Africa’s approach to their military intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Winds of Change

As the security situation within the eastern DRC continues to deteriorate, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi has sought a number of different avenues towards pacifying the region, and ending the insecurity there.

One such avenue has been the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who has deployed a several thousand strong force into the eastern DRC.

When the agreement was announced, it was packaged as one that would see the SADC and the DRC fight alongside each other against the plethora of armed groups that reside in the DRC’s North and South Kivu provinces, as well as the Ituri province. The SADC’s role was not portrayed as one of peacekeeping, but rather one that would see them assist the DRC in destroying many of the armed groups in the eastern DRC. In particular, the SADC was to participate in combat operations against the M23 rebels.

Photo of troops of the Southern African Development Community (Photo from

The forces of the SADC, comprised of troops from South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania, deployed to the DRC in December. As the SADC was entering the nation, troops of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) were on their way out of the country, after the DRC accused them of not taking an aggressive enough stance on the various armed groups, again in particular against the M23.

True to their word, the SADC and the DRC began operations against the M23 one month later, in January. The assault, which ended a US brokered ceasefire that was established in December, began with the assassination of two M23 commanders via a drone strike.

Although the SADC and the DRC began on the offensive, things quickly took a turn for the worse as the M23 launched several counteroffensives. The M23 rapidly gained territory, and has since grown to cover the majority of the North Kivu province. The SADC and the DRC have largely remained on the defensive, as they seek to hold the immensely important town of Sake.

Sake lies on the only remaining road to Goma, the capital of North Kivu, that is still controlled by the government. If Sake were to fall to the M23, it would isolate Goma completely, representing extensive logistical challenges for the DRC and threatening the capture of the city of two million.

Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) pictured following combat nearby the North Kivu city of Goma on June 9th, 2022 (Photo from Reuters).

Combat has been ongoing around Sake since early February, with both sides seemingly unable to make any meaningful pushes in the area.

When the SADC deployed, it appeared that the intention would be victory over the M23, and many of the other over 120 different armed groups that operate in the DRC’s east.

However, in more recent times President Ramaphosa of South Africa has spoken of paths to peace, and negotiations between the DRC and the M23.

If South Africa chooses to pursue the path of negotiations with the M23, this would represent a significant switch in South Africa’s approach to the conflict within the DRC. As the head of the SADC’s intervention force, it could also spell a change to the conduct of the troops on the ground.

President Ramaphosa’s words come as he has visited several nations in the region. He visited President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and President Salva Kiir in South Sudan. Both leaders iterated their hope that dialogue will return to the region, where it has been missing from for several months. President Ramaphosa additionally made a visit to Rwanda, where he attended the nations’ Kwibuka 30 event, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. While in Rwanda, he underscored the importance of dialogue amongst Africa’s great lakes region.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pictured amidst talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame during his attending of the Kwibuka 30 commemoration event on April 7th, 2024 (Photo from Luke Dray/Getty Images via AFP).

Capabilities of the SADC

While there could be a number of reasons behind the potential change in policy being signalled by President Ramaphosa, the most likely reason is the military setbacks that the SADC has faced since beginning combat operations in January.

These military setbacks come as South Africa is rapidly approaching a general election. On May 29th, South Africa is to hold its election, the polling for which the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has continually fallen several points. As things currently stand, if the ANC is victorious, they will have to form a coalition government as polling shows their support having fallen below 40%.

Prior to the SADC beginning operations, doubts were raised as to the feasibility of the SADC properly being able to combat a force such as the M23. The M23 is very well equipped, has been assessed by the UN as unusually disciplined in its military operations for a rebel force, and is highly mobile. Additionally, the M23 rebels are allegedly supplied by Rwanda, which is a likely explanation as to how they are so well equipped. Rwanda has additionally been accused of sending troops to fight directly alongside the M23, which would provide a potential explanation as to how the M23 conducts themselves as efficiently as they do in combat, if their forces are indeed complemented by Rwandan professional soldiers. Notably, Rwanda denies supporting the M23. Rwandan alleged support of the M23 has been a great source of contention between Rwanda and the DRC.

Rwandan Peacekeepers pictured in Mozambique (Photo from Jean Bizimana/Reuters).

According to the UN, who has been in the DRC for nearly 25 years and has continually engaged the M23 since their initial rebellion in 2012, a large force and significant airpower is needed.

South Africa, as the head of the SADC’s intervention force, has deployed 2,900 troops. Malawi and Tanzania, the other two contributors to the force, deployed 2,100 troops between them in order to bring the SADC’s total force to 5,000. This force is significantly smaller than both the EACRF and MONUSCO, the UN’s mission in the DRC.

In regards to airpower, South Africa is extremely lacking. Helicopters are perhaps the most effective way of combatting insurgencies in the DRC’s east, which is filled with mountains and forests. Offensives carried out with helicopter support were pivotal in militarily forcing the M23 to accept several previous ceasefires, and pushing them back from territory they had seized.

However, the South African military only has eight operational helicopters, five of which are utility helicopters, the Atlas Oryx, with the remaining three being Denel Rooivalk attack helicopters. This total of eight has to suit both South Africa’s domestic and international operations, leaving them very little room to use the helicopters in order to support actual SADC operations within the DRC.

These two inhibitors to the SADC’s operability led to fears they may struggle to actually combat the M23 when they began operations. The military setbacks the SADC has faced since beginning operations in January has proven many of these fears right.

If South Africa begins pursuing a path of negotiation rather than one of military domination, it may show that they, too, have doubts on if they can feasibly defeat a group like the M23.

It additionally could be an attempt by President Ramaphosa to save face in the midst of military setbacks in the DRC as the South African election approaches. As mentioned, the ANC, President Ramaphosa’s party, has been falling behind in the polls. While setbacks and the SADC’s performance in the DRC are unlikely to have a huge effect upon polling numbers, a victory and evidence that the SADC’s efforts are not in vain (whether this be through military victory or political victory through establishing a ceasefire or dialogue of some kind) could assist the ANC in showing a success of President Ramaphosa’s administration.

South African soldiers pictured during operations in Bangui, the Central African Republic (Photo from Reuters/Luc Gnago).

Expanding Peace Processes

The conflict in the DRC witnesses both a significant amount of internal players, as well as international players that have taken a stake in the conflict. A number of these players have attempted to broker peace processes. While there have been many attempts, the most prominent of the peace processes are the Luanda process, and the Nairobi process.

The two processes were parallel peace processes with the primary purpose of the Luanda process to de-escalate tensions between Rwanda and the DRC (which had been threatening to boil over into war with Rwanda accusing the DRC of shelling their territory on several occasions), and the Nairobi process seeking to establish peace processes regarding the DRC’s armed groups.

The processes established a roadmap for co-operation between Rwanda and the DRC and several means to de-escalate tensions, as well as called for armed groups in the eastern DRC, including the M23 and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR, a militant organization based in the eastern DRC that, in its origin, was formed primarily out of former genocidaires from the Rwandan genocide), to disarm.

The two processes were the basis for the EAC Regional Force (EACRF) deployment in 2023. The EACRF deployment was meant to oversee the withdrawal of the M23 from a number of different areas according to peace processes established in their roadmaps, as well as for the EACRF to assist the DRC in combatting a number of different armed groups, including the M23 if necessary.

A group of soldiers of the Kenya Defence Forces during a flag presentation ceremony, attended by Kenyan President William Ruto, ahead of their deployment to the DRC as a part of the EACRF (Photo from REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya).

However, the DRC refused to renew the EACRF’s mandate into 2024 as the EACRF took a more passive role than the DRC was hoping for. The EACRF primarily ended up merely occupying areas that the M23 withdrew from rather than directly combatting them as the DRC demanded. The EACRF’s mandate was not renewed, and now the SADC has taken their place.

As mentioned, the processes established at these conferences have since broken down. However, support has been given by many leaders recently to attempt to revive both the Nairobi and Luanda process, as well as establish new ones.

As a part of this initiative, South Sudanese President Kiir visited Rwanda in February and the DRC in March as a part of a regional “peace tour” in order to support further peace efforts. As the chairman of the EAC, an East African bloc of which both the DRC and Rwanda are members, President Kiir and the EAC have great interest in de-escalating tensions between the two nations, as well as for ending the instability in the east. Kenya is also a member of the EAC. Kenya’s and the DRC’s collective membership in the EAC was pivotal in establishing the Nairobi process.

Additionally, Uganda is also a member of the EAC. President Museveni recently expressed support to President Ramaphosa for the establishment of peace processes.

Also heavily involved in present and past peace processes is Angola, who hosted and established the Luanda process. In more recent times, Angolan President Joao Lourenco, who is also the African Union’s envoy for the Great Lakes region, has managed to get DRC President Tshisekedi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to agree to meet each other, for the first time in many months.

No date has been set for the meeting.

The agreement between Rwanda and the DRC to sit down for dialogue is significant, as it was not long ago that the DRC was threatening war against Rwanda if their alleged support of the M23 did not cease.

Rwanda has condemned several times the SADC’s deployment, as well as the African Union’s support of the SADC deployment.

An Uncertain Future

The potential change in South Africa’s approach spells an uncertain future both for the SADC deployment, but also for the DRC. As the SADC’s operability is continually called into question, a political solution between the M23 becomes increasingly possible. In the interest of pursuing such a solution, whether it be a final peace deal between the M23 and the DRC or simply another temporary ceasefire, it is likely the SADC would scale back their operations, if they plan on being faithful to such a solution.

M23 rebels pictured in Bunagana (Photo from Agenzia Nova).

As the head of the SADC’s intervention force, Malawi and Tanzania’s troops would likely follow suit with whatever approach South Africa takes.

The SADC is presently on a one year mandate in the DRC, set to expire on December 15th. Whether this mandate will be renewed or not depends on their performance. While the SADC has taken a more aggressive approach than the EACRF, which is what the DRC was looking for, they have suffered militarily, losing a number of key areas to the M23.

Whether their mandate will be renewed or not is not exactly clear. While the SADC has not performed as the DRC had hoped, they are still participating in combat and, notably, there may not be many options other than the SADC.

While the EAC may disagree with the DRC’s assessment, they did not perform as the DRC had hoped. As such, the EACRF withdrew from the DRC after only having deployed there the year prior.

Also on their way out of the country, is the UN. MONUSCO, the UN’s most expensive and largest mission, is set to withdraw from the country by the end of the year, ending the UN’s 25 year presence in the country.

A photo of a South African Peacekeeper deployed to the DRC as a part of MONUSCO in 2013, during the M23 rebellion. MONUSCO is the UN’s most expensive mission and also one of the longest running (Photo from MONUSCO).

The UN is withdrawing for similar reasons to the EACRF. After 25 years, the DRC has claimed that the UN has failed to meaningfully change the security situation in the east, and has failed to properly combat the armed groups that operate there. This, on top of a number of individual abuses carried out by MONUSCO over the past several years, has contributed to an anti-UN sentiment amongst both the populace, and the government, prompting the government to demand MONUSCO withdraw from the country.

With the UN and the EAC realistically out of the picture, this leaves very few options for an intervention force in the DRC.

Ending the insecurity of the DRC’s east, which has been ongoing for 30 years, was one of President Tshisekedi’s most important campaign promises in his recent re-election on December 20th. While he has largely avowed to do so militarily, regarding many of the armed groups that operate in the east as terrorist groups, he may not have a choice on achieving a political solution instead of a militaristic one.

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray is a published journalist and historicist with over 5 years experience in writing. His primary focus is on East and West African affairs.


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