/ 2 March 2018

South Africa takes sides in South Sudan

South African William Endley
South African William Endley


Last week, a South African citizen was sentenced to death in a courtroom in Juba.

But what exactly was William Endley, a former career officer in the South African army —in both its pre- and post-1994 iterations — doing in South Sudan to begin with?

His family, and his defence lawyers, insist that Endley was a peacekeeper, and had been tasked with reintegrating rebel soldiers into the South Sudanese military. But South Sudan’s government tells a very different story.

They say Endley was training those rebels to fight against the government and the court agreed, convicting him of treason.

Not that too much store can be set by the opinion of a South Sudanese court. Rule of law in the country has almost entirely broken down, and an independent judiciary exists only on paper.

Take it from Kukurlopita Marino Pitia, a Supreme Court judge who said in his resignation letter in November: “The independence of the judiciary in the Republic of South Sudan has become a mockery.”

Given this context, the near-complete silence from the South African government on Endley’s case is hard to explain. Endley is a South African citizen, about to be executed in a foreign land after being convicted in a kangaroo court, and his government is doing nothing publicly to support him.

Whether he is or is not a mercenary is beside the point: as a South African, he is entitled to a fair trial and South Africa should be insisting that no one executes him before he gets one. But the South African government is playing its own dodgy games in South Sudan, which may explain its reluctance to criticise President Salva Kiir and his administration.

Recently, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula concluded a memorandum of understanding with her opposite number in Juba, Kuol Manyang Juuk. He oversees the army, which is implicated in some of the most brutal human rights violations of the 21st century.

“There is sufficient evidence to conclude that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, both factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition, as well as the armed groups that support the parties to the conflict, are deliberately targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity and by means of killings, abductions, rape and sexual violence, as well as the destruction of villages and looting. These acts constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity,” concluded a recent report of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

These war crimes were not enough to deter Mapisa-Nqakula from visiting Juba, nor did they elicit any condemnation from her. And they did not prevent the signing of the memorandum of understanding, which envisages that the South African and South Sudanese armies will conduct joint military exercises, training and capacity building, according to the minister.

The exact text of the memorandum of understanding has not been made public, and the Mail & Guardian’s requests to see it went unacknowledged by the ministry of defence and military veterans.

Regardless of the details, the minister’s visit to Juba served as a resounding endorsement of the South Sudanese government. So, too, did the warm welcome extended in January to Kiir, who visited Pretoria for three days, meeting with former president Jacob Zuma and then-deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa is South Africa’s special envoy to South Sudan.

On the other hand, Pretoria’s approach towards South Sudan’s opposition has been the opposite of friendly. As the M&G reported last year, opposition leader Riek Machar is under house arrest in a farmhouse just outside Johannesburg. His passport has been confiscated and he is under 24-hour guard, even though there is no legal basis for his detention.

Other opposition figures have regularly complained about a perceived bias against them from South Africa.

This disparity in the treatment meted out towards the government and the opposition makes a mockery of South Africa’s involvement in South Sudan’s drawn-out peace talks. Mediators are not supposed to play favourites.

It also fuels speculation about what South Africa’s motives really are for involving itself so deeply in South Sudan. If it’s really born of a genuine desire to bring peace to South Sudan, this hardly seems the way to go about it.

It is also bad news for William Endley. South Africa has chosen sides in South Sudan, and he finds himself on the wrong one.