President Jacob Zuma ahead of his meeting with Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa. (AFP)
South Africa has increased its economic footprint in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the signing of a power purchase agreement for the sale of electricity from the Grand Inga hydroelectric dam to Eskom.
The deal was one of the main agreements signed during South Africa President Jacob Zuma's state visit to his Congolese counterpart, Joseph Kabila, this week.
Critics of South Africa's intervention in the DRC were quick to argue that this is proof that the country is driven by selfish economic interests.
South Africa will buy more than half of the power – 2 500 megawatts – from the 4 800MW generated by the first phase of the Grand Inga Hydro Electric Power complex, construction of which is scheduled to start in October 2015.
The dam, on the Congo River's Inga Falls, is the world's largest hydropower dam and it is estimated that it will cost at least $100-billion to build.
The project will have the capacity to power almost half of the continent and presents enormous investment opportunities for South African companies.
This week's development is a breakthrough for Pretoria, which has invested militarily and financially for more than a decade to help the DRC government quell the rebellion in the east, particularly in the North Kivu province, as well as building government capacity.
Over the years South Africa has been regarded as a loser in the silent battle for the DRC's strategic minerals, which have largely been scooped up by countries such as China, Canada and the United States.
Claude Kabemba, a political analyst who is currently a director of Southern Africa Resource Watch, says that while detractors have accused South Africa of putting economics before a genuine, long-lasting solution for the DRC, the country has not benefited much.
"You can count two South African mining companies [that have begun operating in the country], but when you look for investments the state helped create there are very few," Kabemba said.
"In terms of strategic minerals South Africa has not done very well compared with countries like China and Canada. But South Africa is doing well in the retail sector."
South African companies have invested in the DRC in the mining, telecommunications, financial services, road infrastructure, construction and hospitality sectors.
Zuma's state visit was buoyed by the victory attained in the past few days with South African troops helping the Congolese army, the FARDC, drive out M23 rebels from the towns the rebels still controlled.
M23 is on the brink of collapse. It has abandoned almost all the towns it controlled and has retreated to the Virunga National Park, which borders Rwanda. Its pleas earlier this week for Zuma to pull out his troops fell on deaf ears as the president promised his continued support for Kabila.
South African soldiers are the backbone of the United Nations force intervention brigade, with 1 345 of the 3 069 members of the brigade that is authorised to use force to neutralise the rebels.
This positive development did not come without controversy. Congolese rebel group M23, some countries in the Great Lakes and analysts have accused South Africa of prioritising economic diplomacy over other crucial issues such as democracy and human rights in the Congo.
South Africa's insistence on supporting Kabila's government against the rebels terrorising the eastern part of the DRC has earned Pretoria foes and friends. The DRC's neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda, frown upon South Africa's intervention. The two countries have been accused by the United Nations of supporting rebel groups, an accusation they deny.
South Africa is working closely with Angola and Tanzania on the DRC matter.
A source with close links to the Rwandan government said the DRC's neighbours were the first victims of instability.
"Regional and international stakeholders are blinded by the economic resources that the DRC offers and have refused to look at root causes of problem," the source said.
Bigger and stronger
"Whatever they are told by DRC officials is taken as biblical truth in exchange for millions of contracts. Does the elimination of M23 solve the problem of Tutsi and Hutu in north Kivu and bring stability? There will be no sustainable solution to the problem unless neighbours are involved," said the source.
Kabemba said South Africa's commitment to the DRC undermined countries that were supporting the rebellion, creating unhappiness.
"The new brigade has created a situation where the rebels and their backers have got to face a bigger and stronger bloc they can't defeat. It's unlike when the Congolese army was fighting alone. It's a wise approach that South Africa has taken but it needs the support of the international community," he said.
Rwanda believes the root causes of the perennial conflict in DRC are a lack of governance, the DRC's hosting of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which took part in the Rwandan genocide, the insecurity of Tutsis in north Kivu, a weak national army, the mushrooming of armed groups linked to politicians whenever they do not agree with the government, as well as general corruption within the government.
In a recent interview with the Mail & Guardian, Rwandan ambassador to South Africa Vincent Karega said the UN peacekeeping force, Monusco, had failed to bring peace to the DRC.
"One of the reasons to bring UN forces into the Congo was to disarm and send the FDLR back to Rwanda," Karega said. "But they bought time, they ate the money and they are in a way inefficient but nobody is courageous to tell them because they represent so many countries."
Kabemba agreed that the DRC is poorly governed.
"South Africa should not lose sight of governance issues. Zuma must tell Kabila we need stability, but we also need proper governance. Congo lacks the correct state administration. You don't run the state without systems in place," he said.
"South Africa needs to insist that Kabila rise above these problems and get an inclusive government that cuts across ethnic divides. You can't say we're all for transparency without having institutions that ensure that the government is held accountable. We've got the state that continues to be controlled by external powers that have interests in Congo."
In 2012 South Africa's exports to the DRC amounted to R12-billion, while its imports were R67-million.
"Congo has a lot of potential to become one of South Africa's biggest trading partners. It's got fertile land, minerals and water that it can use to trade," Kabemba said.
"Currently it's one-way, where South Africa is exporting its products to the DRC because the DRC can't do anything in its current state."
The DRC was ranked second in the 2013 failed states index, after Somalia.
A South African international relations insider said South Africa wants to ensure that the instability in the DRC doesn't spill into the entire country and has urged M23 to form a political party if they want to participate in Congo's democracy: "We have invested a lot in that country and we're not shy about it."
Pretoria paid for the 2011 elections and this year's census and contributed R3-million to the UN's efforts to alleviate hunger in the DRC. South Africa will also help fund the Grand Inga power project.
A policy brief published by the South African Foreign Policy Initiative last year, titled "A short history of South Africa's relationship with the Democratic Republic of Congo: Waiting, in vain, for the economic honeymoon?", cast doubt on whether South Africa would ever enjoy the spoils that normally come with being an ally of a war-torn country rich in strategic minerals.
"Competition is globalised and tough. In the mining sector, Canadian, US and Australian companies are active and can source funding for deals far beyond South Africa's capacity," according to a foreign policy initiative analysis.
With the Grand Inga project many believe the honeymoon has begun.
The department of international relations and co-operation spokesperson Clayson Monyela said those who reduce the DRC's problems to poor governance and blame South Africa for ignoring it are "way off the mark".
"The challenges in the DRC are complex and cannot be simplified in those terms," Monyela said.
He added that countries that criticise South Africa's involvement, claiming that Pretoria doesn't understand the politics of the Great Lakes region, were not helping matters, because "no bickering will make the problem go away".
"All Africans should be focused on finding a lasting solution to the crisis at hand. All peace-loving countries welcome South Africa's intervention along with other countries under the banners of the African Union and UN," he said.
"Anybody opposed to an intervention meant to secure peace and protect civilians would have to explain what their interest and motive is."
Twenty African heads of state have been invited to Pretoria on November 4 and 5 to discuss the challenges of the Great Lakes region.