/ 25 September 1998

We have some serious explaining to do

Howard Barrell

Over a Barrel

We South Africans may have scored something of a first this week in the annals of foreign policy-making.

We may well be the only country ever to complete what appears to be a full-scale somersault in foreign policy and to invade a neighbouring state while our president, deputy president, foreign minister and finance minister were all overseas.

But my surprise at the fact and timing of South Africa’s military incursion into Lesotho this week can scarcely have matched the rude awakening visited on opposition parties and mutinous troops in Maseru at 5am on Tuesday.

Many of them, according to South African intelligence estimates, thought it unlikely that South Africa would invade. Had not South Africa adopted principled postures against military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

And, asked the Lesotho rebels rhetorically, if South Africa would not act against Lesotho militarily, who else could? For anyone else who might want to would have to cross South African territory.

Moreover, reasoned the hapless Lesotho opposition, nothing decisive could happen until President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki had returned to Cape Town.

Something could and did. They had reckoned without Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s willingness, after telephone consultations with Mandela and Mbeki, to take military action and to “own” this decision as acting president.

It is not difficult to understand the Lesotho opposition’s miscalculation on this score. Lesotho politicians are used to weak political institutions.

Their experience told them that the business of government in South Africa could not possibly continue properly in the absence of the two top men.

But it could and did. And, in this sense, South Africa’s young political institutions scored an important triumph in the midst of Lesotho’s tragedy. The stand-ins, from Buthelezi downwards, did well under difficult circumstances.

Like many of us on our side of the border, the Lesotho rebels also believed South Africa’s claims to have firm policy guidelines on intervention in other countries’ internal conflicts.

In the debates over whether South Africa should join Angola, Namibia and Zimbab- we in intervening militarily in the Congo, South African representatives outlined four positions.

The first was that any such conflict should be resolved by negotiations aimed at reaching an inclusive settlement. The second was that South Africa was prepared to exert a wide range of pressures on the relevant parties to join such talks.

But South Africa opposed outside military intervention by its own or other forces in other countries’ internal conflicts.

And, finally, South Africa would consider intervening military in another country in the region only as part of a joint Southern African Development Community (SADC)force acting with the express authority of both the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations.

This, we all thought – the local diplomatic corps as well – meant no military intervention in Lesotho.

I was, however, told by a senior Cabinet minister on the day after the invasion that I may have taken these guidelines a bit too literally.

He explained there was a more pragmatic defining reason to explain why South Africa did not wish to intervene militarily in the Congo, whereas it had seen some sense in doing so in Lesotho.

It was this: Congo President Laurent Kabila was prone to see any military intervention by other SADC states as action in support of him against his opponents, so intervention was unlikely to promote inclusive politics there; in the case of Lesotho, however, both government and opposition would come to see SADC military intervention as an incentive to negotiate between themselves an inclusive settlement.

That remains to be seen. But, if this calculation is correct, we may yet be able to say the intervention was worthwhile – although I am never sure how one says that to the loved ones of those who die in this kind of encounter.

The South African government also justifies its intervention on the basis that the Lesotho opposition had effectively mounted a coup but was failing to declare this.

The reason for this reticence on the part of the Lesotho rebels was, according to South Africa, that they feared a coup announcement would lead other SADC governments to invoke Article 5 of the protocol setting up the basis for the SADC’s security organ.

This article, whose status is unclear, provides for the management of disputes within and between SADC states.

South Africa insists its troops are in Lesotho as members of an SADC force, authorised by the agreement set up in 1994 under which South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe became guarantors of democracy in Lesotho following instability there. Appearances have not, however, done much to support this.

Zimbabwe has sent no troops (perhaps because of the military burden it is bearing in the Congo), President Robert Mugabe would not make himself available for a discussion with Buthelezi during planning for the incursion, and the Botswana Defence Force contingent could get itself to the scene of the battle only once South African troops had already done the job in Maseru.

And, finally, South Africa justifies its incursion into Lesotho by referring to two letters it and some other SADC leaders received from Pakalitha Mosisili, Lesotho’s prime minister, explicitly begging them to intervene militarily.

Mosisili did not consult with King Letsie III before making his appeal. Lesotho’s Constitution obliges the prime minister to do so – although the prime minister does not have to secure the king’s agreement to the proposed action.

Nonetheless, South Africa argues the prime minister was acting properly in not consulting the king before inviting SADC troops, since Mosisili had reason to believe that, if consulted, the king would seek to defeat his purpose.

South Africa’s view is that the king was clearly conniving with opposition leaders who had promised him new powers if they took over.

The king’s view is, I gather, that South Africa has all along been favouring the governing Lesotho Congress for Democracy.

His feelings toward South Africa have not improved since armoured cars barged through his palace gates and troops raised the South African flag in the palace grounds.

Last weekend, a desperate Letsie told a visitor he feared Lesotho would be sacrificed in a battle for diplomatic pre- eminence in the region between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The implication was that he feared that South Africa had been stung by Zimbabwean criticisms of it for not sending forces to the Congo; that South Africa now felt it had to show Zimbabwe that it, too, had the guts to kick arse around the region; and that South Africa had chosen little Lesotho as the stage on which to do so.

The South African government rejects this. But it has now taken a bold step into Lesotho which has involved much violence, exacted great human and material cost, and promises uncertain rewards.

If South Africa is not to look like a thug and an idiot, it will have to demonstrate in the coming days and weeks that there is real constructive intent to what it has done.