More than 800 soldiers from the South African National Defence Force are heading off to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of South Africa's annual troop rotation.
The first batch of troops from 5 South African Infantry (SAI) Battalion was due to depart for the DRC on 30 May. An advance party of 50 personnel managing the handover left South Africa on Thursday last week.
5 SAI is replacing 4 SAI for the year-long deployment. The main element of the rotation will take just over a week, using chartered aircraft, with the final flight leaving on 8 June. The first batch comprises 213 soldiers, with other flights leaving on 1, 6 and 8 June.
The first 188 soldiers from 4 SAI were due to arrive in the evening of 29 May, with the second batch due on 31 May and the remainder on 5 and 7 June.
The current troop rotation is for the United Nations’ Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) - the SANDF has other personnel with the UN in the DRC, such as an Air Force contingent, but they are rotated on a different schedule.
South African soldiers will be deployed in the Eastern DRC, close to the Rwandan border, where they are expected to mainly face Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels.
Defence and Military Veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula addressed the more than 800 soldiers at the mobilisation centre outside Bloemfontein on 29 May. She urged them to obey the rules and make South Africa proud.
She said South Africa's involvement in peacekeeping has made the country among the world's top five troop contributing countries, having taken part in UN, African Union and SADC operations in many different countries, from Lesotho to Sudan. "We've learnt a lot of lessons," the minister said, "but we're still learning and refining our skills."
In addressing the soldiers about to be deployed, she said that in spite of the successes recognised in neutralising M23 rebels and other forces, she was concerned about the sexual exploitation and abuse of women by peacekeepers and urged the soldiers not to touch civilians. She said abuse is not just about rape but also taking advantage of women or forming relationships, as this is abuse of power.
There were seven cases of sexual exploitation and abuse registered in 2015, five in 2016, and three in the first three months of 2017.
The minister said she didn't want any cases of abuse as this is embarrassing to the country and the SANDF. She also urged the soldiers to maintain discipline and strive to deserve the trust placed in them.
Through work, discipline and achievement the minister urged soldiers to rise to the occasion and make Africa a better place. "You have very big shoes to fill," she said, as South African soldiers are known as "fearless" fighters. Along with troops from Tanzania and Malawi, South African forces played a vital role in defeating M23 rebels in the DRC in 2013.
Her visit on Monday coincided with the UN's international peacekeepers' commemoration day. Mapisa-Nqakula and senior SANDF leaders laid wreaths at the Tempe military base in honour of the 40 South African service members who have perished during UN operations over the last 15 years. They died in Burundi, the DRC and Sudan.
During her address to the 5 SAI, the minister also paid tribute to members who lost their lives overseas and in South Africa, including the 13 female soldiers who perished in a vehicle accident in 2016.