/ 31 March 2011

Pretoria’s African agenda

Pretoria's African Agenda

‘If you pick up a South African paper today,” a senior department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) official grumbled recently, “you will find hardly anything any more about South Sudan.

You will also be forgiven for not realising there is an election coming in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year, or that there are all sorts of very major challenges around regional integration. There’s just no alignment between popular foreign policy obsessions and what really matters to the country. It’s like the fisherman standing on the side of the dam: he always wants to throw his line as far as he can, into the middle or even to the other side, when in fact the big fish are all nearby, in the shallows.”

Our guide to South Africa’s African agenda takes its cues from this analogy and looks at some big foreign policy issues in South Africa’s shallows.

North and South Sudan
South Africa has spent a great deal of effort and money on Sudan since the warring parties, the National Congress Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The result, expressed by diplomats of both North and South Sudan at a February meeting in Pretoria is that South Africa is held in high esteem, South Africa is trusted.

With trust in the bag, the charge to South African diplomats is now clear: don’t cock things up like you cocked up Burundi. (South Africa invested heavily in the Burundian peace process, but then allowed its relations with that country to lapse and could not afterwards demonstrate how its efforts were in the national interest.)

Moving from a position of trust to a point where South Africa’s national interest is also served is easier said than done, however. Petrus de Kock, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (Saiia), offered the following advice: “On one level South Africa must understand and engage with regional dynamics. A power vacuum has opened at the regional level due to civil war in Libya and the revolution that engulfed Egypt. Both countries wielded influence in Sudan but as their regional postures are weakened due to internal turmoil, an assertive diplomatic strategy from South Africa may translate into deeper strategic influence in Sudan and the central and north African regions.”

More importantly, De Kock said, South Africa will need to be sensitive to the political and security challenges within North and South Sudan. As both have to engage in processes of constitution-making, De Kock said, South Africa’s experience in this regard can become “a key ‘selling point’ of a constructive engagement with both territories”.

There was certainly enough advice parcelled out at the talks in Pretoria, with one official after another standing to advise the Sudanese diplomats “not to do as we did and promise voters things you can’t deliver” and to “be wary of people who love you more than you love yourselves”.

Democratic Republic of Congo
The architectural brief for Dirco’s plush new headquarters included the extensive renovation of the government guesthouse on Waterkloof Ridge, as well as the construction of a second “six-star” guesthouse at the foot of Meintjieskop, so that, according to design architect Mark Pencharz, “South Africa can bring warring factions to the country for mediation sessions, and put them up in equal luxury.” These facilities were put to use in early March, when representatives of all major political parties of the DRC met for a South African sponsored round of “inter-Congolese” talks.

On the face of things each speaker at a round-table discussion on the political situation in the DRC was polite about South Africa’s past peace-brokering efforts, but two refrains indicated rising levels of impatience. First, all leaders noticed just how entrenched South African business was in the DRC. Second, they lamented the fact that many of the issues being discussed had been discussed during previous South African mediation efforts. The implied message was: when is the South African mediation effort going to start benefiting Congolese people in addition to South African businessmen?

As the DRC heads for its second post-war presidential election in November 2011 South Africa’s challenge, if it wishes to remain both a credible intermediary and a driver of South African economic interests, will be to demonstrate a more hands-on involvement in democratic processes. Saiia’s Dr Kathryn Sturman said: “This is not just necessary from a humanitarian point of view. Vodacom, Anglogold Ashanti and other companies are all too aware of the way Congolese officials seeking rent without providing security in return can unravel business plans. Taking advantage of the DRC’s fickle contract environment the way investors with family ties to Jacob Zuma have done, snapping up oil concessions near Lake Albert in the eastern DRC, is not the way to go.”

Sturman believed South African diplomats should instead draw attention to some of the murkier oil and mining contracts concluded in the DRC. “Controlling the illicit trade in gold, coltan, tin ore and timber away from the lawless fiefdoms of soldiers and rebels in Ituri, North and South Kivu is a vital element of peace-building in the eastern DRC. South Africa should use its United Nations Security Council seat to keep this issue high on the agenda,” she said.

SADC and Sacu
It’s not hard to understand why bulging eyes and sweaty palms resulted from the recent presentation to Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) members of a consultancy report proposing amendments to the union’s revenue-sharing formula. Currently, union members like Swaziland and Lesotho are almost entirely dependent on a combination of union revenue and foreign aid. If the consultants’ recommendations were to be followed, Swaziland’s share of the revenue, for example, would drop from 9% to 3%.

From a South African perspective, skilful management of this tension is crucial. On the one hand South African foreign policy in 2011 is supposed to be aligned with domestic concerns and a domestic concern raised very volubly by trade union federation Cosatu is King Mswati III’s penchant for using Sacu revenue for “extravagant activities such as the purchase of luxury cars”.

On the other hand, as Institute for Security Studies director Jakkie Cilliers pointed out, South Africa is very sensitive to issues of national ­sovereignty. “I was in Addis Ababa in February for the African Union summit on fostering unity around shared values. Each regional bloc was asked to outline its values and, for most, these included democracy, human rights and so forth. When it came to Southern Africa, however, shared values equalled things like non-interference, sovereignty and so on.”

So how does South Africa balance its regard for its neighbours’ sovereignty (a sensitivity that leads away from the apartheid-era practice of sending soldiers across borders on murderous covert missions) with its view that a greater share of the Sacu revenue should go to development in the region, with the Development Bank of South Africa as a potential vehicle?

It’s hard to visualise a solution that doesn’t involve stepping on toes. Most Sacu members see their share as compensation for the fact that their membership prevents them from protecting their industries from competition from South African products. A hard-nosed approach from South Africa in regard to revenue sharing could therefore result in Sacu members instituting protective tariffs. If this happens, it will be a setback for regional economic integration processes and the country’s cherished new national marketing concept — South Africa as a gateway to Africa and to the world — will ring a little hollow. As for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and South Africa’s commitment to its agenda, there are two very different schools of thought.

One is that South African interest appears to have waned. “Given South Africa’s substantial financial contribution to making SADC work,” said an analyst who preferred not to be named, “we should have high-level representatives in SADC. Instead we have a military officer on secondment in the planning organ, making lists of necessities for SADC events, like tents and tea urns, and then sourcing these tea urns from member states. The official rhetoric is all about hooking SADC up with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and the East Africa community, but this doesn’t make sense unless SADC sorts itself out first.”

Centre for Conflict Resolution director Adekeye Adebajo took the view that Zuma’s 2008 state visit to Angola, the first he made as president, sent the message “that he actually wanted to create some sort of alliance or relationship that could drive integration in Southern Africa. I think South Africa is very serious about SADC. This was the reverse of [Thabo] Mbeki, who had competition in SADC and so sought his influence in the AU. By winning support in SADC first Zuma is doing things the right way around.”

Saiia’s Catherine Grant said the spirit might be willing but the flesh is weak. “The South African government agreed at the Cabinet lekgotla earlier in 2011 to try to improve its own internal coordination on SADC issues. However, with many different government departments and agencies involved in SADC work it is an ongoing challenge for Dirco to ensure a coherent South African approach. There is significant rhetoric on South Africa’s commitment to regional integration, but this is often not met by action, including on the free ­movement of people.”

In 2011, said Grant, South Africa’s commitment to SADC will be measured, among other things, by the part it plays in the ongoing SADC monitoring of the political situation in Zimbabwe, which, she said, will remain a SADC priority at the highest level.

This article is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Its views are those of the author and the Mail & Guardian