It’s long been suspected that the domestic ‘state capture’ under the Zuma administration, which is so much in the news currently, applies very much also to South Africa’s foreign relations. Former Congress of South African Trade Unions secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi’s recent disclosures about President Jacob Zuma’s relationship with Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema have now considerably reinforced those suspicions.
Vavi told the Sunday Times that in October 2008 – just after Thabo Mbeki had been ousted as national president but before he himself became president – Zuma arranged a secret business meeting with Obiang for his son Duduzane Zuma and Duduzane’s business partner, Rajesh Gupta.
This happened while Zuma was on an official visit to Equatorial Guinea to attend the country’s independence celebrations. Vavi said he and South African Communist Party Secretary-General Blade Nzimande, both of whom Zuma had invited on the trip ostensibly to discuss his upcoming first cabinet appointments, were ‘incensed’ because they were instead left ‘twiddling’ their thumbs while the Zuma father and son, the Gupta brother and Obiang discussed their private business interests.
This incident confirmed ‘the complete capture of the ANC [African National Congress],’ Vavi said. Apart from the implications of influence-peddling and nepotism which this alleged incident raises, there is also the important question of whether and how such private business interests might be influencing South Africa’s relations with Equatorial Guinea.
These seem to have been cool before Zuma, under the Mandela and Mbeki administrations – as would have expected, given Obiang’s unsavoury reputation as a de facto dictator (despite holding elections, which he routinely rigged) who brutally represses political opposition and media; and who has siphoned off much of his country’s oil wealth into private offshore bank accounts. But relations warmed up considerably after Zuma took over. A year after the trip Vavi referred to, Zuma paid the first visit to the country by a South African president when he received ‘a warm and tremendous welcome to the country,’ according to a joint communiqué.
In October 2011, Obiang reciprocated with his first state visit to South Africa. One of the striking things about that visit was how Zuma unreservedly supported Obiang’s highly controversial bid to endow a UNESCO International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences with US$3 million.
This bid – transparently an attempt by Obiang to burnish his poor reputation – was widely opposed by human rights defenders, including Desmond Tutu. They said it would taint UNESCO – the United Nations (UN) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – to have a prize named after Obiang, who had violated so many of the values which UNESCO stood for, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The issue was hot during Obiang’s 2011 visit to South Africa. The UNESCO board has just suspended approval of the prize, pending further deliberation.
Zuma dismissed Obiang’s critics as racists and neo-colonialists, and commended him for his ‘dynamism and determination in implementing his government’s developmental programmes, which are aimed at uplifting the lives of the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea’. Rather rich praise for a dictator who has kept most of people still mired in poverty, despite the enormous oil wealth which has lifted its per capita income to developed world levels.
Vavi recalled that Duduzane Zuma and Rajesh Gupta had arrived in Equatorial Guinea via Angola and the Central African Republic (CAR) back then in October 2008. Private and ruling party business interests are also suspected to explain some of Pretoria’s interests in CAR especially.
In March 2013, as we know, 15 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers died in a clash with Séléka rebels on the outskirts of Bangui as the rebels raced to topple President Francois Bozizé and seize control of the country. Why exactly South African troops were propping up Bozizé, another leader hardly worth fighting for, has never been adequately explained.
But the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported at the time that the ANC had substantial business interests in CAR, especially in diamonds, through its funding front Chancellor House and through certain politically connected business people. This notably included Didier Pereira, who was then Bozizé’s security adviser and who is connected to key ANC personalities such as Paul Langa, Joshua ‘General’ Nxumalo and former spy chief Billy Masetlha. ‘Is this what our soldiers died for?’ the Mail & Guardian pertinently asked.
As for Angola, Zuma was fingered in the – admittedly highly controversial – leaked ‘Browse Mole’ report. Produced by South African intelligence agencies, the report described Zuma as having received financial support from Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for his successful bid to unseat Mbeki as ANC President in 2007.
It was in any case notable how quickly Zuma thawed the frosty relations between South Africa and Angola, paying his first state visit there three months after being elected president in 2009. And there have been many suggestions that private or party financial interests coloured South Africa’s relations with Gaddafi’s Libya – as they coloured Gaddafi’s relations with many other African governments. In 2012, Mahmoud Jibril – who had been interim Prime Minister of the Libyan government opposing Gaddafi in 2011 – told Al Arabiya television that Zuma had first agreed to pressure Gaddafi to resign but then had backed off because Gaddafi had agreed to fund the ANC’s local government election campaign.
Last year, Jibril acknowledged to ISS Today he had no proof of the accusation of monetary persuasion, but that he still could not explain why Zuma – who at the time was engaged in secret peace negotiations with him to try to resolve the conflict – had done such a sudden about-turn on Gaddafi’s resignation.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is another country where the motives for South Africa’s deep involvement are a little hazy.
In May 2014, City Press reported that President Zuma had used his influence to get DRC President Joseph Kabila to grant his nephew Khulubuse Zuma two highly lucrative oilfields on the country’s border with Uganda in 2010.
Kabila took the oilfields – with an estimated lifetime value of R100 billion – from Irish oil giant Tullow Oil and gave them to Foxwhelp and ?Caprikat, two companies which Khulubuse Zuma had just registered in the British Virgin Islands.
City Press quoted military analyst André Roux, formerly of the Institute for Security Studies, as suggesting that this oil deal was a reward from Kabila to South Africa for helping him stabilise the eastern DRC so his government could reap the benefits of the rich natural resources there.
This referred to South Africa’s military involvement in the DRC, particularly its vital contribution to the UN’s Stabilisation Mission in the DRC’s Force Intervention Brigade, sent into the eastern DRC to neutralise ‘negative forces’ which, among things, were plundering those natural resources.
Apart from all the many issues this alleged deal raises about influence-peddling, capture of foreign policy by the first family and nepotism, it also raises serious questions about the welfare and development of the Congolese people. As former UN secretary general Kofi Annan pointed out in his Africa Progress Report in 2013, the DRC loses tremendous amounts of government revenue by selling such mining concessions at way below their real value to connected individuals (the implication being that a lot of the money returns as kickbacks).
The report said that between 2010 and 2012, five such under-priced mining concessions were sold in ‘highly opaque and secretive deals’ costing the country US$1,3 billion in revenues, equivalent to double the DRC’s health and education budgets combined.
Some might also see Zuma’s excessive number of political appointees to South African ambassadorships – among the highest in the world – as another manifestation of ‘state capture’, of the use of state resources to resolve political problems such as dumping unwanted security officials and the like.
In many of these instances cited, the charge of ‘state capture’ would be hard to press. Even more than in domestic politics, the wellsprings and motives of foreign relations are very hard to trace.
For one veteran ANC official though, there is no doubt what is happening. ‘We are exporting state capture,’ he quipped sardonically this week.
Vavi told the Sunday Times that he would be reporting the Equatorial Guinea incident to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to be included in her intended probe into alleged state capture by the Gupta family. But the allegations of the ‘export’ of state capture go beyond the Guptas. They require a deep investigation into all foreign deals by the government where private or party – rather than national –interests are suspected to have been at play.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant