STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
South Africa says its military is done trying to police another African country. Late last night, South Africans said they would withdraw their small military force from the Central African Republic. Ten days ago, rebels advanced on the capital of that country and killed 13 South African paratroopers. That prompted many South Africans to ask why the soldiers were there at all. The question here is whether the troops were protecting business interests linked to South Africa's governing party.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Think Central African Republic, and you may remember the name of Jean Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed emperor of a dirt-poor but potentially wealthy country rich in minerals, diamonds and uranium. In the '70s and '80s, the CAR had close ties to the former colonial power, France. Now, questions are being asked about the mutinous country's relationship closer to home - with South Africa.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEMORIAL SERVICE SINGING)
QUIST-ARCTON: Thirteen South African paratroopers were killed in a fierce battle when rebels marched on CAR's capital, Bangui. The South Africans - about 200 of them, says the military - fought the rebels for nine hours. A memorial was held for them back home in Pretoria, on Tuesday.
The South African commanding officer, Maj. Stephen Jiyane, described their ordeal to the assembled mourners, and how they were ambushed behind enemy lines.
MAJOR STEPHEN JIYANE: They stood, cunning, in their positions, like tigers, waiting for my command. They fought ferociously, like lions, when the firefight broke out.
QUIST-ARCTON: The rebels accused the South Africans of being mercenaries - sent to the CAR, they said, to prop up a dictator, the now-deposed President Francois Bozize. The fallout is messy. There's pressure on President Jacob Zuma to explain the purpose of the troop deployment.South African reinforcements were sent into the CAR at the height of the rebellion in January, to train the army there and other duties, said President Zuma at the time. And he's not backing down.
PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: We reject any insinuation that these soldiers were sent to the Central African Republic for any reason other than in pursuit of national interests, and the interests of the African continent.
QUIST-ARCTON: Local news reports suggest the troops were dispatched to safeguard mining interests in the Central African Republic, allegedly tied to highly placed members of South Africa's governing ANC party, a charge denied by the government. But opposition leader Helen Zille is crying foul.
HELEN ZILLE: What makes this intervention even more disturbing is that the deployment was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice, allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and in the Central African Republic.
QUIST-ARCTON: Zille's opposition Democratic Alliance is demanding the immediate withdrawal of the remaining South African troops from the Central African Republic, and an inquiry into why they were sent there. Zuma angrily hit back at his critics during Tuesday's memorial for the dead soldiers.
ZUMA: The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country. Government must be given space to do its work. Military matters are military matters - they are not social matters that are discussed in public. And I wish and hope that South Africans will appreciate this and therefore, know which line not to cross, for the sake of the country.
QUIST-ARCTON: But the controversy is not dying down. South Africans are not used to seeing their soldiers returning home from foreign military ventures in body bags.
The nation, which is still trying to find its feet as the heavyweight on the African continent, is left to mourn the greatest loss of life in combat within the defense force, since the end of apartheid.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.