South Africa has agreed to withdraw troops from the Central African Republic (CAR), after leaders of Central African countries made it clear to President Jacob Zuma they wanted his troops out.
However, the South African government is celebrating what senior officials describe as important concessions on the way regional and international bodies will deal with the fallout from the conflict, and considers itself a victor for ensuring that regional leaders who attended this week's summit of the six-nation Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) did not recognise rebel leader Michel Djotodia's government, formed after last month's coup.
ECCAS countries, led by Chad, apparently told Zuma in N'Djamena, Chad's capital, that the region preferred to lead efforts to stabilise the CAR. South Africa will play a role in the process, seen by the government as a stamp of approval for the country's efforts to help the CAR.
State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele is part of a delegation of foreign ministers that travelled to Bangui on Thursday morning to deliver the message to Djotodia that ECCAS leaders did not recognise him as president. Cwele was representing International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who could not travel to the CAR.
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The ECCAS summit also agreed that the delegation would include representatives of the European Union and the United States.
Chadian President Idriss Déby announced shortly after the summit ended on Wednesday that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) would leave the CAR.
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told a special sitting of the joint standing committee on defence in Parliament on Thursday that South Africa took a decision to withdraw as soon as President François Bozizé's government fell last month. "By the time we went to the summit, it was just a matter of announcing the decision," she said. "We started withdrawing our soldiers after the government collapsed."
Though not willing to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the matter and diplomatic relations, a top South African government official dismissed reports of pressure on Zuma, telling the Mail & Guardian the president voluntarily told Central African leaders the defence force would leave the CAR.
"In his presentation, he said we were in the CAR because of a bilateral agreement, but a new situation had arisen," the source said. "We were never there as a fighting force, but when we were attacked, we fought back."
South Africa was particularly unhappy that Djotodia trampled on all aspects of democratic rule, he said. At the media briefing on Thursday, Nkoana-Mashabane said that Zuma had told the summit that, "since the self-appointed leader of the CAR took over, in the process nullifying the Constitution, the Parliament and the judiciary, it has become clear that the government that we entered into an agreement with is no longer in place".
South Africa is said to have been initially "reluctant" to withdraw troops during discussions at the Chad summit, but Central African leaders told Zuma they would invite South Africa should they need the SANDF's intervention "in times of crisis", a source in Chad said.
The M&G has learned from three sources that Chad led the charge in expressing strong views against South Africa's presence in the CAR. Chad, along with Angola, began its offensive against Zuma last week during an Africa Dialogue Forum on the sidelines of the Brics summit in Durban, said the sources.
Two sources who attended the meeting in Durban said that Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos and Chad's Déby were outspoken in their opposition to the defence force in the CAR. "President Dos Santos didn't hide it," said the source, who attended the meeting. "He is supporting Fomac [Multinational Force for Central Africa] forces. Not French or South African."
The source said no one openly supported South Africa at the Durban meeting: "Some didn't want to comment in the presence of your guys [the South Africa representatives]. Others raised their unhappiness, but diplomatically."
According to M&G sources, Déby would prefer the CAR's parliamentary speaker to take over the leadership of the country on a temporary basis, a prospect the Seleka rebels are unlikely to agree to. The region then plans to reinforce Fomac's presence while the process continues to restore order in the country until constitutional elections are held within 18 months. Fomac consists of troops from the CAR's neighbours: Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. "Remember he [Déby] is currently chairperson of ECCAS," a source said. "Do you think he would support something else?"
Ola Bello of the South African Institute of International Affairs said it was understandable that the CAR's neighbours would prefer to lead efforts to resolve the country's problems instead of having South Africa at the helm. "We are not the central player in Central Africa," said Bello. "There is Chad, which sees itself as a leader in that region and it is also a military powerhouse. I don't see why they'll willy-nilly allow South Africa to come and encroach in the affairs of the region."
Bello said it was "wise" for South Africa to "cut its losses, swallow its pride and withdraw from CAR".
Angola also harboured ambitions of being a leader in Africa and would not allow itself to be upstaged by South Africa.
While some countries were "shocked" by South Africa's withdrawal announcement because of the country's alleged earlier reluctance, others said "He [Djotodia] is there already, let's recognise him."
The president of another ECCAS country apparently told Zuma on the side after the Chad summit that he was worried things would change the minute South Africa turned its back, according to sources intimate with the process.
A government source told the M&G: "The thing is we've got to be realistic about the politics in that region." If Djotodia refused to go, South Africa would "cross that bridge when we get there".
South Africa's concern about a spillover into the DRC also played a role in Zuma's presentation to the Chad summit, making clear the imperative that the continent must put an end to the changing of government through coups.
Said the source: "If the CAR succeeded in keeping the rebels in, the next place to be taken would be eastern DRC."
South Africa also believes that it has set the Central African region on the right track to implementing democracy. "It is the first time in Central Africa that countries unanimously agreed to say no to coup leaders. In the past, when coup leaders toppled governments, regional leaders would accept them."
By not advocating a harsh stance on Djotodia, South Africa believes it is playing safe. "The man cannot complain we're saying 'lock him up'. We're saying to him: 'You're a free man, you can participate in the process to reinstate democratic rule'."
In an interview with the BBC this week, Bozizé accused Chad of helping the Seleka rebels that toppled him, saying they were supported by an African country, "which I inevitably believe was Chad".
The accusation lent credibility to suspicion that some Central African countries could be prepared to accept the rebel leadership. Bozizé said Chadian special forces had also attacked the South African base.
But the Chad summit presented a different picture, according to South Africans. Déby even protected Zuma from tough questions posed by journalists who attended the press conference, one casting doubts on the number of casualties from the rebel attack. South Africa believes that is a sign that Déby has "turned around" and sees the importance of unity against the Seleka rebels coup.
Most of the SANDF soldiers who were deployed in the CAR have returned home after 13 of their colleagues were killed by Seleka rebels two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, a row broke out after DA MP David Maynier told the defence standing committee on Thursday that the government had "lied" about why soldiers had been sent to the CAR.
ANC committee chair Jerome Maake said Maynier must not be mischievous and make a statement that impugned the government: "If a person makes a statement like this, he must burn his fingers."
Maynier was later given the chance to speak further. "I think it is an incontrovertible fact that President Zuma misled Parliament on the deployment of the SANDF in the CAR," he said.
Maake told Maynier: "I think it is fair that you withdraw and apologise." Maynier refused to do so.
It was decided that the records would be studied and the issue dealt with at a later hearing.