THE withdrawal of South African peacekeepers from Sudan came as a result of an inability to provide logistic support to the soldiers deployed in Darfur, due to interference by the Sudanese government, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Wednesday.
Earlier this year, President Jacob Zuma surprised the nation by announcing that South African troops would be withdrawn from Sudan. Shortly after the announcement a South African soldier was killed while on a patrol in Darfur.
SA blighted its international reputation last year when it failed to arrest Sudanese President Omar al Bashir as required by a warrant of the International Criminal Court, which indicted him on charges of war crimes and genocide.
In a strong statement on the matter, Ms Mapisa-Nqakula, introducing her budget vote in the National Assembly, said: "SA deployed forces in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2008 as part of the United Nations and African Union hybrid mission.
"The Sudanese government made it increasingly difficult for us to provide logistic support to our troops and impossible for our troops to protect the women and children of that country."
She said as a result the decision was taken to withdraw the force from April 1 and "this force will not be replaced", and a team of experts would manage the withdrawal of remaining South African National Defence Force (SANDF) assets over a six-month period.
The minister said some of the problems encountered were the gaining of clearances for aircraft to fly over Sudanese territory and/or land in Darfur. She said the death of the South African soldier was not the reason for the withdrawal.
Responding to a question at an earlier news conference, Ms Mapisa-Nqakula said there "obviously" had been "interactions" with the government of Sudan and the United Nations.
She said the SANDF should be sufficiently resourced and skilled to execute operations across the full spectrum of conflict and "an inadequately resourced defence force will have a negative impact on operational outputs, including the loss of life".
The minister added: "As a country we have come to the point where we must make a critical decision on the future of the defence force. The longer we delay arresting the decline, the harder and more expensive it will become to reverse this trend."
She said over the medium term, the defence budget would fall to less than 1% of gross domestic product when the international norm was 2%, and that these cuts would put international peacekeeping and other operations at risk.
Democratic Alliance MP Sarel Marais described the decline in defence funding as a threat to national security. He said while flying hours in the air force were drastically cut, flying hours for the VIP squadron was dramatically up "so that gallivanting VIPs could put SA’s soldiers at risk".
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Nicholous Khoza also questioned the budget cuts and the VIP travel of President Jacob Zuma, declaring that the EFF would oppose the budget.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said the money being earned by state-owned defence companies Denel and Armscor should be ring fenced and used to support the defence budget.
African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart also criticised the budget cuts and the increase in VIP flying hours, and reminded the house that it had the power to change the budget.