South Africa and Morocco look set to re-establish diplomatic relations after 13 years of giving each other the cold shoulder.
President Jacob Zuma, international relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South African ambassador to the AU Ndumiso Ntshinga, as well as Zuma’s lawyer Michael Hulley, met Moroccan King Mohammed VI on the sidelines of the African Union-European Union summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Wednesday night.
A Moroccan publication, which is partial to the king, gushed that the meeting was a “master stroke” and “warm”. The two heads of state “agreed to work together for a promising future, especially as Morocco and South Africa are two important poles of political stability and economic development, respectively in the extreme north and the extreme south of the continent,” the publication reported.
There were also economic incentives at play as the two countries “agreed to maintain direct contact and to launch a fruitful economic and political partnership in order to build strong, lasting and stable relations and go beyond the situation that had characterised bilateral relations for decades,” Maghreb Arab Press reported.
A South African official said the meeting signalled the strengthening of diplomatic relations between the countries after Morocco withdrew its ambassador from Pretoria in 2004 when South Africa recognised the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, also known as the Western Sahara.
“After their admission into the AU it becomes diplomatically unsustainable not to allow them to establish a diplomatic mission in Pretoria,” the official said.
South Africa wanted Morocco’s recognition of Western Sahara as a precondition to it being readmitted into the AU in January, but that didn’t happen.
The issue of Western Sahara almost disrupted the two-day summit, which is set to end on Thursday. The Ivory Coast, which is hosting the gathering, initially did not invite Western Sahara, but after other AU member states threatened to move the summit back to the continental body’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Western Sahara was invited.
The official claimed South Africa played an important role behind the scenes to make the summit happen. “We’re trying to prevail on [Morocco] to go easy on Western Sahara,” he said. “Our intervention ensured they were invited to this summit. Morocco had lobbied France and the host not to invite them. We put our foot down to say if this is an AU-EU Summit, all AU member states must be invited and participate.”
Only three months ago an unpleasant physical altercation between the Moroccan and Saharawi took place at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Maputo.
According to a senior South African diplomat who was present at the meeting, the Moroccans tried to block the Saharawi delegation from having access to the conference room. A member of the delegation was pushed and fell to the floor.
The official said it was easier to prevail on Morocco to tolerate Western Sahara’s presence this time because the EU was worried about the inroads other world powers, like China and Russia, were making into the continent, and therefore put pressure on Morocco to “behave”.
South Africa regards Morocco’s non-recognition of this territory’s independence as the last vestiges of colonialism on the continent.