One might think from the triumphalism of South Africa’s media that peace came this week to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Let us be honest with ourselves: the South African-brokered agreement between Congo leader Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is the first step in the proverbial journey of a thousand miles.

This is not to say that there has been no meaningful progress. It was no mean feat to shepherd Kabila and Kagame towards agreement, and President Thabo Mbeki and Deputy President Jacob Zuma deserve praise for this. Without the withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the Congo, and the disarming and dismantling of murderous Hutu militias who may still destabilise the country, and strike into neighbouring states, there can be no peace. Kabila and Kagame appear, for the first time, to have shown real political determination to grapple with the intractable conflicts of the Great Lakes region. They will be bolstered by a United Nations unit, reinforced by South African soldiers.

But enormous uncertainties still surround the agreement, which does not cater for a range of other centrifugal forces in the Congo. The key outstanding question is how the Hutu interahamwe is to be “tracked down, disarmed and dismantled” within 90 days in a densely forested territory of two million square kilometres with the most rudimentary infrastructure. Kabila has said persuasion, and force if necessary, will be used to achieve this. But given the weakness of his army, this looks like bravado. Hutu militiamen who had a hand in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, and face repatriation to Rwanda and international justice, are unlikely to meekly surrender their weapons, and attempts to disarm them may simply create a new source of conflict. The 90-day deadline looks hopelessly unrealistic, and South Africa’s generals are said to have warned the government that it would take that long to get South African soldiers on to the ground. A further complicating factor is the alleged presence of interahamwe génocidaires in Kabila’s army itself — despite his denials.

The neutralisation of the interahamwe is pivotal to any further progress towards peace in the Congo. If Hutu militiamen remain at large to mount attacks from Congolese territory on Tutsis in adjacent states, there is every chance that the Rwandans will reverse their withdrawal and continue throwing their weight behind their rebel surrogates, RDC Goma. Uganda would then continue propping up the rebel Congolese Liberation Movement. The Zimbabwean troops based in Kinshasa, on which Kabila critically depends for survival, would also stay put.

The material interests of the various external forces active in the Congo — particularly the mineral interests of Zanu-PF and the Zimbabwean defence force — are likely to further impede disengagement.

For highlighting the difficulties, rather than joining the mindless media cheerleaders, the Mail & Guardian will no doubt be accused of “Afro-pessimism”. It is important to rebut such charges. The M&G unreservedly supports the South African government’s peace efforts on the continent, not only because peace is humanly desirable in itself, but because continued conflict is one of the greatest threats to our national future. South Africa’s ability to confront its daunting problems — poverty, unemployment, HIV/Aids, food security, urban drift and the entrenchment of democratic institutions — hinges critically on what happens in our region and even further afield. The scenario exercise covered in our edition of last week heavily underscores our inter-connectedness with our neighbours — we cannot insulate ourselves from the ripple effects of worsening conflict and economic collapse in sub-Saharan Africa. It is for this reason that this newspaper has been so critical of our government’s appeasement of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

In recent years, the term “Afro-pessimism” has increasingly been used to stigmatise critics of Mbeki’s African renaissance and its institutional expressions, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Union. It is suggested in some quarters that these are sacrosanct and that to think otherwise is a form of racism or heresy. There is a tendency to think that Africa’s resurgence must happen because the continent is morally owed, and historically in line for, better treatment. Handshakes between leaders and the launch and relaunch of institutions are seen as major breakthroughs in their own right, rather than preliminary steps towards real progress.

Of course there is hope for Africa — but it must be a hope grounded in reality, not rose-tinted illusion. If we deny problems and brand attempts to highlight their urgency racist and Afro-pessimistic — essentially Mbeki’s line on HIV/Aids — we merely compound them and make them harder to remedy by taking the required pre-emptive action. If in its desire to be nice to our leaders, the media soft-pedals on the drift towards authoritarianism, corruption, the monolithic state and the politics of patronage in our region, we will never get to grips with these debilitating trends.

The Polyanna optimism urged on us as our patriotic duty does a disservice to our country. Future generations of South Africans will not thank us for putting ideology before the facts.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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