About 700 South African troops have deployed to Burundi to guard politicians who are returning from exile to take part in a transitional government. But there is widespread concern in South Africa about how well the mission has been planned.
The first 240 South African troops went to the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, on Sunday. Another contingent leaves Tuesday, followed by the final 220 soldiers Thursday.
Their job is to guard the exiled opposition politicians, who are returning to Burundi to take part in a transitional power-sharing government due to be implemented Thursday.
Some local security experts are asking tough questions about the mission. There is still no cease-fire in Burundi, and some armed groups object to the presence of foreign troops in the country. That is one of the reasons South Africa is sending so many troops, so they can protect themselves, as well as the Burundian leaders.
Some analysts also point out that South Africa has peacekeepers deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They worry that Pretoria is stretching its military resources too thin, possibly putting its soldiers in undue jeopardy.
Steven Friedman, head of the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, says there are legitimate questions to be asked about South Africa's military involvement. "Our foreign policy in the last couple of years has consistently - and in my view, correctly - insisted that you cannot resolve any of these disputes in a military way," he said. "Now, that is not what we are trying to do. But the logical conclusion from that, I would think, is that you only send troops in when this thing is absolutely a done deal, when you have all-party consent to a peace settlement and all the parties are saying, 'will you come help us enforce the peace settlement?' Now, that is not remotely the case either in Burundi or DRC."
The South African troops are not, strictly speaking, a peacekeeping force. They are operating with the consent of the United Nations, but without a formal U.N. mandate. They are supposed to act more like police officers and bodyguards than soldiers. But there is widespread concern that the South Africans could get sucked into the conflict, if the transitional government does not take hold.
Analyst Jan van Eck of the University of Pretoria has been playing an informal facilitation role in the Burundian peace process. Speaking to South African state radio from Bujumbura, he admitted what is called mission-creep is a real danger. "To some extent, obviously, this is not a totally representative government; there is no total unanimity amongst parties yet," he said. "So, obviously, this is not the end of the Burundian peace process. But this is the end of the first stage of the Burundi peace process."
One of the reasons South Africa is willing to commit troops to Bujumbura is because of its deep involvement in the Burundian peace process. Former South African President Nelson Mandela mediates the peace talks. Current Deputy President Jacob Zuma has also been involved, as have other South African government officials.
Mr. Friedman of the Center for Policy studies says Pretoria has to walk a fine line when it comes to its involvement in other parts of Africa, particularly military involvement.
During the apartheid era, South African troops were active in many parts of the continent, as a destabilizing force, not a peacekeeping one. Mr. Friedman says some other countries still perceive South Africa as a bully. At the same time, it is also in many ways the most powerful nation on the continent, which comes with certain responsibilities. "There is a real problem that we have, that South Africa has, and that is - somebody called it the Germany-Japan syndrome after World War II," he said. "Because of our apartheid history, and obviously Germany and Japan's Second World War history, you land yourself in a position where, whatever you do is wrong. If you do not intervene and you are not supportive, people say you are being callous. And if you do, people start talking about the giant reawakening and trying to colonize everybody."
Mr. Friedman says there has always been a strong isolationist element in South African domestic politics. Leaders, he says, have long been criticized for paying attention to the world, rather than issues at home.
Current President Thabo Mbeki is no exception. But Mr. Mbeki has consistently said South Africa cannot grow in isolation. He believes his country's future is inexorably linked to that of the entire African continent.