Many people in South Africa were shocked by the death of at least 13 South African National Defence Force troops when rebels overran their base in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Few knew that South Africa even had troops in CAR. When it emerged that troops were possibly partly deployed to protect businesses in CAR linked to top African National Congress (ANC) officials, there was widespread outrage.
The ruling class in South Africa have for decades had an explicit agenda of expanding their political and economic interests in Africa. This has not changed since 1994. The South African dominance back date to the late 1800s and early 1900s. South Africa’s economy has always been based on exploiting the southern African region and for this it has always needed military presence. Two examples are;
-By 1967 the South African state was heavily involved in the War of Independence in Zimbabwe. The reason: to protect South African business interests in the country, including the mining interests of companies such as AngloAmerican, to prop up their allies with the Smith regime, and to role back the prospect of a black nationalist movement taking state power in the then Rhodesia.
– When the Portuguese state left Angola in 1975, the South African state escalated the war. South African state officials from the late 1960s until the end of apartheid were desperately concerned about the presence of vast quantities of oil in Angola. They believed the Angolan state, under the MPLA, was aiming to use revenue from oil to industrialise the country. They were not willing to let this ever develop into a real prospect. 70% of the country’s infrastructure that existed at independence was destroyed by the end of the war. Much of it has never been rebuilt even today and Angola’s economic potential has never been reached and an estimated 1.5 million people died.
South Africa’s has changed since the dark days of the wars in Angola and Mozambique. Certainly, white capitalists remain a large part of the ruling class in South Africa. They have, however, now been joined in the ruling class by a small black elite, centred around the state.
In 1998 the post-apartheid state invaded Lesotho after a coup. While claiming to have done so on humanitarian grounds, the real reason for the invasion was to protect the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which was designed to supply vast quantities of water to companies operating in South Africa’s industrial heartland, Gauteng.
By 2000 South African troops were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a ‘peace keeping’ force. By then, private and state-owned South African companies were making inroads into the country. Relations between the South African and DRC state have also become closer. The DRC state has awarded the Oppenheimer’s and Motsepe’s mining rights, it has given Zuma’s nephew oil concessions, and it made the South African state owned ESKOM the central player in a massive hydroelectric project. By 2012 the number of South African troops in the DRC had reached almost 1 300 troops; with as many as another 1 500 to be deployed in 2013. Consequently, South Africa has become an important arms supplier to the DRC state.
South Africa’s influence has also moved up the continent and is deploying troops in South Sudan. South Sudan has granted South African private and state-owned companies concessions in the telecommunications, agricultural, forestry, water purification, financial, infrastructure development, energy, oil and minerals sectors. Partly in return, the South African state pushed for an independent South Sudanese state, it supplied it with weapons, and it trained the South Sudanese military.
By the mid-2000s the Bozize in Central African Republic regime at the time was looking to break the stranglehold that French imperialism had over it, and it approached the South African state and ruling class as an alternative. As part of this, investment opportunities, including in the oil industry, were opened up for South African-linked companies. In return a deal was signed in 2006, whereby South Africa would offer military assistance to the Bozize regime. This included training CAR troops and later involved South Africa deploying its own troops and even providing security directly to Bozize.
The disturbing reality is that South Africa has been playing an imperialist game in Africa for years. Like all imperialist powers, the South African ruling class need and want a strong state to back up their economic expansion. The South African state has protected these through political maneuvering, and when this has failed or when it has not been enough it has used nationalist rhetoric to get working class soldiers to defend these privileges, often by protecting allied local regimes.
Shawn Hatting arbetar som researcher på Afrikagruppernas partnerorganisation ILRIG