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21 Aug 2007 13:27
South African President Thabo Mbeki led a delegation of more than a dozen ministers to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Tuesday to sign deals on defence, transport and health as the former Belgian colony rebuilds after historic elections.
The visit was the first such high-level meeting between the two nations since DRC held its first democratic polls in more than four decades last year, meant to turn the page on a devastating 1998 to 2003 war.
Ahead of Mbeki’s arrival, ministers from South Africa held meetings over the weekend with their Congolese counterparts to finalise agreements, including assistance with security sector reform and help rebuilding airports, railways and ports.
“After the elections and given that DRC is a post-conflict country, these deals are going to allow us to really get going with all the reconstruction efforts announced by the president,” DRC’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Claude Kamanga said.
After winning the elections last year, Congolese President Joseph Kabila pledged a five-pillar effort to rebuild the vast, mineral-rich nation, focusing on infrastructure, defence, health, education and economic development.
Decades of mismanagement under former ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, combined with the war, have left the infrastructure in DRC—a country the size of Western Europe—in ruins.
Much of the rail network is little changed since Belgium gave DRC independence in 1960, air travel is expensive and dangerous with all but one of dozens of registered airlines blacklisted by the European Union, and there are few paved roads outside the capital, Kinshasa.
The deals to be signed with South Africa are expected to include the rehabilitation of airports in Kinshasa as well as seven other regional airports, the construction of new railways lines and repairs to the ports of Matadi and Boma.
South Africa’s growing influence
South Africa, a pariah across black Africa until the end of apartheid white rule in 1994, has ramped up its investment across the world’s poorest continent in recent years.
Mining companies, long a pillar of South Africa’s economy, have spread out across Africa mining gold, copper, uranium and other minerals. DRC’s large population and huge mineral reserves have proved a magnet for South African investment.
Large blue billboards advertising South African mobile operator Vodacom dot Kinshasa, where the few supermarkets stock products like biltong (dried meat), beloved of the many South African businessmen and military personnel serving with the peacekeeping force in DRC, the United Nations’s biggest.
Tuesday’s meeting is the fourth such “binational commission meeting”, but South African and Congolese officials said it was particularly important coming after the transitional period that culminated in last year’s elections.
“It is very important.
Both countries have good bilateral relations and this meeting is one of those that seeks to build on work that has already been done,” Mbeki’s spokesperson, Mukoni Ratshitanga, said.
DRC’s six-year war killed an estimated four million people, mainly through hunger and disease.
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