Amid worsening relations with Nigeria, Pretoria stands accused of buying support for its candidate for African Union commission chief.
The tussle between South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Gabon’s Jean Ping to head the African Union Commission appears to have entered a vicious new phase just a week after South Africa hosted high-level African leaders, including Ping, for the Global African Diaspora Summit in Pretoria.
The former South African ambassador to Malawi, Tom Wheeler, said the South African government clearly used the summit to charm leaders before the vote for the commission’s chairperson in Malawi in July. But some of those attending the summit said they were not impressed by South Africa’s overt use of the meeting to lobby support for Dlamini-Zuma.
A Gabonese official, who did not want to be named, said it was in poor taste that she addressed a gala dinner attended by African leaders, including Ping. The official said the Gabonese government was upset about the South African government giving Malawi $23-million recently. “Why now, just before the vote? Why not during the Mutharika era?”
Former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika died unexpectedly on April 5 and was succeeded by Joyce Banda.
But Malawian and South African officials rejected the suggestion of impropriety.
“South Africa undertook to provide the Malawian government with a $35-million loan in April, to be used to mitigate the country’s fuel crisis,” said Nthombile Mapude, Malawi’s high commissioner to South Africa. “It has nothing to do with the chairmanship vote whatsoever.”
The spokesperson for the department of international relations and co-operation, Clayson Monyela, said the loan was the only money pledged to Malawi. The Malawian president had requested it when she officially visited South Africa in April.
The Gabonese embassy in Pretoria did not respond to a request for comment.
The Gabonese source also claimed that South Africa had given South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir a jet, a claim that was confirmed by the South Sudanese government.
Monyela said the South African government had made an aeroplane available for Kiir, but could not say whether he was given the use of it or the aircraft itself. He said the AU had deployed mediators to several conflict areas, such as the Sahel, the Sudans and Somalia, and South Africa frequently responded generously when it identified issues that impeded mediation and reconciliation.
“We have pledged money in the Sahel, Somalia - the list goes on and on. It’s standard practice for us,” Monyela said. “I repeat, these pledges are completely and demonstrably unrelated to any lobbying for the South African candidate.”
Dr Paul-Simon Handy, research director at the Institute of Security Studies, said African diplomatic circles had been abuzz with claims that the South African government was buying votes, but there had been no evidence of it.
“If proven right, these allegations could really damage South Africa’s standing on the continent, because this is basically what [deposed Libyan leader] Muammar Gaddafi did when he was trying to flog his United States of Africa vision and it had an enormously divisive effect,” Handy said. “It was also the practice of the apartheid government to
practise chequebook diplomacy on the continent.”
But, Handy said, Malawi and South Sudan probably did not have to be enticed to vote for the South African candidate. “South Africa has long been a friend to South Sudan and the Malawi government … will be thankful that South Africa subtly put pressure on Malawian politicians to abide by their Constitution when transferring power after the sudden death of Mutharika.
“Plus Malawi is a SADC [Southern African Development Community] member and as far as anyone can tell Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has full SADC support,” he said.
Last week several newspapers reported that Nigerian Vice-President Namadi Sambo had pledged his country’s support for Dlamini-Zuma during a speech at the annual meeting of the South Africa-Nigeria binational commission in Cape Town. But the Nigerian high commission in South Africa was quick to reject this and Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru publicly reaffirmed Nigeria’s support for Ping.
Embarrassed South Africa
Analysts said the misunderstanding had embarrassed South Africa. “It has drawn attention to what appears to be a deficit in support for South Africa’s candidate,” said Wheeler. “We always say the obstacle to South Africa’s bid is the West Africans and that they’re being influenced by France and all this conspiratorial stuff.
“But I think the displeasure with South Africa pushing its candidature again is more widespread. I had a conversation with an ambassador from an East African country recently and he was really quite outspoken on the subject, saying it’s fine for SADC to put forward a chairperson, but that somebody from a small country should have been nominated … For the sake of unity, the major countries should stand back and allow the small countries to fill these offices,” Wheeler said.
Handy said “the East African bloc appears not to be inclined to vote for the South African candidate”.
“Ethiopia is opposed, we know that. They are a major player in Africa with their own continental aspirations and would not assist South Africa to play a more influential role on the continent. Kenya will not support South Africa on technical grounds - they have put forward a candidate for deputy chairperson and, according to AU protocol, either the chairperson must be Francophone and the deputy an Anglophone, or vice versa.”
Handy said South Africa could rely on support from Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan, but not Rwanda or Sudan. “Uganda will probably go with the major regional powers – Kenya and Ethiopia.”
Fritz Nganje, a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, said South Africa put itself in a difficult position when it put forward a candidate and it was unlikely that it could have handled its lobbying in a less divisive manner.
“There is a prevailing tradition or understanding that this position should be reserved for the smaller states on the continent,” Nganje said. “The moment South Africa put forward a candidate it broke with this understanding and activated any number of tensions.”
But Petrus de Kok, a South African Institute of International Affairs researcher, said South Africa’s bid for the position made sense in terms of its strategic aims.
“There has been a lot of debate about the timing, but the fact is there has never been a Southern African candidate in that position, so I don’t see a problem with the timing of Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy.
“More importantly for the South African government, we’ve just had our second term on the United Nations Security Council and we are very influential in the African Union. If we could get that position, it would put us in an excellent position to influence thinking in the UN about the relationship between the AU and the UN Security Council, which has been very strained,” he said.