South Africa has for the first time expressed interest in receiving specialized military training from the United States under a program designed to enhance the peacekeeping and humanitarian relief capacities of African armed forces.
It is only in recent years that South Africa has set aside its past reluctance and involved itself in peacekeeping operations, notably deploying forces to countries such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But until now, South Africa, seen as one of the continent's military powerhouses, has not sought the kind of intensive peacekeeping training offered by the United States under its 5-year-old ACRI or African Crisis Response Initiative program.
That program has now been replaced by a new initiative known as ACOTA, or Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance. It differs from ACRI by offering training tailored to meet the specific needs of an individual African country.
Theresa Whelan, Director of the Pentagon's Office of African Affairs, says that custom-designing capability appears to have made the difference in attracting South Africa's interest.
"They were very interested in the fact that the program is flexible and that it is tailored or can be tailored to each country's specific needs and requirements," Ms. Whelan said. "That was one of their main concerns about the ACRI program as it was originally conceived, that it had a rather fixed curriculum, so to speak, and they felt that curriculum might not necessarily be applicable to their current status."
Ms. Whelan says formal talks are expected between U.S. and South African defense officials next month to hammer out a possible training program.
But she says South Africa's interests are already emerging.
"Their interests, based on informal sidebar conversations, seem to range from interest in logistics issues that deal with peace support operations, C-130s [transport planes], medical units," she said. "They're also interested in the institutional development of their peacekeeping and peace support operations training institutions."
Several hundred South African troops are currently deployed in Burundi to protect politicians participating in the country's multiparty transitional government.
In addition, South Africa has sent a small contingent of support personnel to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist in monitoring a peace agreement. The group includes paramedics and traffic controllers.
South Africa's Defense Minister Mosioua Lekota, has acknowledged other countries on the continent expect South Africa to play a leading role not just diplomatically but in military matters.
The minister has also said South Africa will be required to provide technical expertise for peacekeeping missions because most other African countries lack the ability to do so. For that reason, the official said South Africa needed to intensify training for its own staff.