SA's chance to share the rainbow

Since opening an embassy in Khartoum in January 2004, South Africa’s involvement in Sudan has grown more visible. President Thabo Mbeki has a key role in the African Union-led Sudan peace process and Pretoria currently chairs the AU’s post-conflict reconstruction committee on Southern Sudan.

South Africa’s Department of Foreign Affairs, the University of South Africa and the AU have been engaged in a collaborative initiative to build capacity in the south.

There are, of course, substantive possibilities.
Sudan is home to one of the largest unexploited oil reserves in the world. Besides oil, the country is also well endowed with natural gas, minerals and immense agricultural potential. The (re)construction, after 19 years of civil war, provides lucrative opportunities for the construction industry, and prospects in retail, consumables and utilities are substantial. Business interest in Sudan is growing and a number of South African companies are angling for real and potential opportunities.

But Pretoria’s strategic latitude is relatively small. In the face of dwindling global fossil fuel reserves, Sudan’s oil has lured more powerful players such as the United States, Russia, China, India, Iran and Korea, whose interests are manifest through multinational companies and state corporations already deeply involved in Sudan. How events play out in the next few years may, however, expand Pretoria’s strategic scope.

Under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreements negotiated at the Naivasha peace talks in Kenya, Sudan will have a six-year transitional government, after which a referendum will decide on a unitary state or an independent south.

Although it has been taken as a matter of orthodoxy that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) elite generally supports secession, an important section is rooting for unity. The secessionists, among other things, reason that independence would give them direct control of natural resources. The case for unity is grounded on the premise that secession would throw up latent political problems in Southern Sudan, most notably anxiety among smaller ethnic groups about political dominance by the majority Dinkas, who have traditionally filled the top ranks of the SPLM.

Legislative and presidential elections are scheduled for 2009, a year before the referendum. The timing of this might unwittingly tilt the vote in favour of unity. The SPLM is expected to participate in the polls and the odds are that if it does, they are likely to win. The last census in the country was held in 1956; Muslims constituted only 35% of the population. It is widely accepted that the south holds the majority of Sudan’s 40-million people. Given the potency of race and religion in Sudan’s politics, it is also expected that the Southern Sudanese will vote overwhelmingly for the SPLM.

The 2009 polls would thus technically transfer power to a black-led government. Such an outcome would certainly strengthen the hand of those agitating for unity. Besides, and for no reasons other than strategic considerations, the majority of Arab Northerners are likely to vote for unity, which would reduce the chances of a secessionist success through the ballot.

Barring a renewal of conflict, such an outcome would place Sudan in a political situation similar to South Africa’s in many important ways.

Firstly, political power will be in the hands of a black majority while economic power will still reside with an Arab minority. Politically, this would root an imperative for re-distributive and restorative justice, similar to that of a post-apartheid South Africa. Second, years of racial and religious tension between north and south will necessitate a formula for harmonious co-existence and integration between Arab and non-Arab populations.

Such a scenario would create a brilliant strategic window for Pretoria.

South Africa’s experience, but currently tentative success, in dealing with a similar political situation is tactically bankable currency. South Africa’s constitution-making process and the Constitution itself, macro-economic models and lessons, the truth and reconciliation process, nation-building and state reform exercises can be traded for stronger diplomatic and political ties with Sudan.

Godfrey Chesang is a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Africa’s International Relations at Wits University

Hanging by a thread

The Sudan peace agreement hangs by a thread and has amplified divisions within the rebel movements fighting the Khartoum government in Darfur.

The government and the Minni Minnawi-led faction of the Sudan Liberation Army signed a pact, which his rival in the rebel movement, Abdel Wahed Mohammed al-Nur, has dismissed as making them employees of Khartoum. He said the agreement in its present form only addresses humanitarian issues and not the political causes behind the conflict.

On Monday angry demonstrators killed a Sudanese interpreter working with African Union forces in Darfur. In a statement, the AU said the incident ‘seemed to have been orchestrated to coincide with the visit of Jan Egeland, United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, who was himself under threat of physical harm”.

The AU has also expressed concern about the ‘spate of violent demonstrations” by internally displaced persons in Darfur and the impact this was having on humanitarian efforts to render assistance to the needy.—Percy Zvomuya

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