ISS: SA should first sort out its own backyard


South Africa ‘is at the forefront of efforts to bring lasting peace and stability to the continent’, the country’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) insisted earlier this month. ‘Particularly in countries such as Libya, South Sudan, Sudan (Darfur), Somalia and Western Sahara,’ continued DIRCO’s deputy director-general for public diplomacy Clayson Monyela.

Monyela was responding in Daily Maverick to comments by Institute for Security Studies (ISS) consultant Liesl Louw-Vaudran.

Since Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma stepped down as AU Commission chairperson in January this year, South Africa had been retreating from the continent, Louw-Vaudran wrote in an ISS Today article. And as the country retreated, she said, it ceded power to other players on the continent, such as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and President Alpha Condé of Guinea.

Whatever one might think of the effectiveness of Pretoria’s efforts to resolve the conflicts on Monyela’s list, what is conspicuously absent is any mention of countries in South Africa’s own regional organisation, the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

It would seem South Africa is ready to pursue peace across the globe – but not in its own backyard.

The political violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) draws ever closer to boiling point and new mass graves are being discovered in the Kasais every week. The still-unresolved succession battle in neighbouring Zimbabwe continues to portend chaos if 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe should suddenly prove to be mortal after all. Zambia is sliding down the slippery slope to autocracy. Swaziland’s absolute monarchy remains a regional embarrassment – and Mozambique’s civil war just goes on.

All these thorny problems, the DRC at most, are likely to be on the agenda when SADC holds its annual summit in August, and South Africa takes over chairmanship of the organisation for the next year. But judging by the recent summit in Pretoria between DRC President Joseph Kabila and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, SADC will probably just ask Kabila a few polite questions about when he envisages elections will be held.

Though Kabila’s party agreed last December – when Kabila’s mandate expired – that the delayed elections would take place this year, the country’s electoral commission announced earlier this month that that was now practically impossible. Zuma had already accepted that explanation in his meeting with Kabila.

This apparent denial of the urgency of such burning issues within the regional body is disappointing and even alarming to some outsiders, who see it as an abdication by South Africa of what they regard as its regional responsibility.

The European Union (EU) shares at least some of this sentiment, judging by remarks made by Jean-Christophe Belliard, deputy secretary-general for political affairs in the EU’s external service, during a visit to South Africa last week.

He was particularly concerned that South Africa didn’t seem to be using its clout to persuade Kabila to expedite the elections which would choose a replacement for himself. His failure to vacate State House has sparked violent protests across the country while an insurgency in the Kasai provinces has caused hundreds of deaths – mostly, it seems, at the hands of government forces.

Belliard said the EU was not sure Kabila would be able to hold the country together. And if the DRC did descend into violent chaos, there would be no one to come to its rescue.

The EU had sent military missions to the DRC in the past, he said, but it was unlikely to do so again as France – the EU’s main military force – was already overstretched on other missions in Africa. And the international community more broadly already had its hands full with crises such as Syria, Libya, Palestine, Boko Haram, the Sahel and Somalia. South African could do more, he said.

While the EU has expressed concern that the DRC may not even be on the upcoming SADC summit agenda, both SADC executive secretary Stergomena Tax and a senior South African official told ISS Today that the DRC would again figure in the summit’s peace and security discussions. To what effect, though, is the question.

The DRC used to be a regional priority, said Belliard – but now SADC seemed to have washed its hands of it. Indeed South Africa played a major and decisive role in the early 2000s, providing consistent support to the stabilisation and democracy processes, as Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher in the ISS’s Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Programme, pointed out.

Belliard reiterated the EU’s policy of supporting African efforts to resolve the continent’s crises themselves, saying Brussels was funding 95% of the AU’s military intervention budget. But he said the EU would like to see South Africa play a bigger role in addressing regional conflicts.

The EU isn’t alone in worrying about the possible looming catastrophe in DRC. Last month a group of nine former African presidents and ex-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan issued a statement that said the country was in ‘grave danger’.

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) is no doubt distracted by its own bitter internal leadership struggle. But the country’s reluctance to intervene in such regional crises also seems to rest on a sense of solidarity with incumbent governments – especially those ruled by former liberation movements like its own – and a concomitant suspicion of ‘regime-change’ agendas of the Western powers demanding action.

This came to light recently when the confidential report of a workshop held last year of SADC’s six governing former liberation movements was leaked. These movements were the ANC, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Namibia’s South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
‘The workshop agreed that regime change is the primary and perhaps the most urgent common threat facing the Former Liberation Movements for now and the foreseeable future,’ said the report. ‘The workshop agreed with the Russian and Chinese characterisation of regime change … as the increasingly widespread Western practice of overthrowing legitimate political authorities by provoking internal instability and conflict against governments that are considered inconvenient or insubordinate to their interests, replacing them with pliant puppet regimes that then pander to their interests.’

The report said Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the MDC, had been created by Britain as a ‘Trojan Horse for its regime-change strategy’. It said manifestations of this strategy could also be found in other SADC countries, such as the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa, Chadema in Tanzania, ‘the DTA and other opposition pretenders in Namibia’ and RENAMO ‘banditry’ in Mozambique.

Given that sweeping and sinister interpretation of the role of the political opposition, one should perhaps not expect either South Africa, or SADC as a whole, to rush to put pressure on Kabila or any other deviant regional leader to concede to democratic change.

Belliard, incidentally, was convinced after his meetings with South African officials and other foreign policy experts that South Africa still had an important role to play in mediating conflicts around the world. He even suggested it could help resolve the increasingly perilous stand-off between the almost-nuclear-armed North Korea and its neighbour South Korea.

At the same time Belliard seemed rather bemused by Pretoria’s championing of some other, not-quite ‘lost’, causes – like Western Sahara and Kurdish independence.

Whether South Africa is capable of having any impact in such far-flung places, or if this is just wishful tinkering, is a moot point. In any case, one would think Pretoria would be more effective if it tried to effect changes closer to home.

Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.