Congolese opposition leader Moïse Katumbi launched his presidential bid in the “country of Mandela” this week, saying he was inspired by South Africa’s peaceful change of presidents last month.
His bid comes amid indications that South Africa and its neighbours are exerting pressure behind the scenes on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, to stick to the schedule for the planned December 23 elections. They should have been held in 2016, when Kabila’s second term expired.
The DRC’s elections body said concerns about money, a population census and violence by rebel group M23 necessitated the delay.
Since then, people are reported to have been killed or injured in protests organised by the Catholic Church over the postponement.
Katumbi, previously governor of the southeastern Katanga province before a falling-out with Kabila, said he had known former president Jacob Zuma for a long time.
“I was coming to South Africa, so I think you can see yourself how democracy goes in South Africa. There was no blood, nobody was killed in South Africa. That’s why I chose South Africa,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “The South African government, at the time of [former] president [Thabo] Mbeki, they gave us a podium to resolve all our problems. So for me, I appreciate what South African people did. They spent money on [the DRC’s] democracy. That’s why I came to thank the South African government and to congratulate them on the new change [of presidents] in South Africa.”
Mbeki helped to facilitate peace talks after a civil war in the DRC, resulting in the Sun City Agreement in 2002. But many in the Congolese opposition regarded Zuma as an ally of Kabila because of the Zuma family’s reported business interests in the DRC.
Katumbi’s choice of Johannesburg from which to launch his presidential bid is likely to have increased the pressure on Kabila. Stephanie Wolters from the Institute for Security Studies said he was “sending a strong signal to Kabila not to count on South Africa as an ally”.
“It is important for the opposition to have support in the region and also from a country like South Africa,” she added. “There are many more challenges for Katumbi before the election, and he does not know that these will be free and fair.”
Katumbi has lived in Europe since being sentenced in absentia in June 2016 for the illegal sale of a property in Lubumbashi. He says he could be arrested if he returns to the DRC in June. But his sentence and dual Italian citizenship might preclude him from running for the presidency, Wolters said.
It is understood that Western governments have let up their pressure on Kabila over Katumbi’s case, with some believed to be backing another opposition leader, Vital Kamerhe.
Home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete did not respond to questions about how more than 100 DRC citizens, who flew in to attend Katumbi’s launch of his presidential bid, got visas at short notice.
Organisers said the launch was kept secret because of security considerations.
South Africa is said to be concerned that opposition supporters could use the country to organise an insurrection or instability in the DRC, but Katumbi this week told supporters “let’s have an election, not fighting”.
South Africa has not openly challenged Kabila about the postponement of the 2016 elections. After his visit to Pretoria in June last year, Zuma said South Africa accepted Kabila’s explanation that technical problems had delayed the elections.
A government official said South Africa and other countries in the region are “working very hard behind the scenes” to ensure that DRC’s elections go ahead in December.
The DRC’s ambassador in Pretoria, Bene M’Poko, said meetings with South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission and others in the region about assistance with training and logistics are taking place.
In the past, South Africa helped with ballot papers and transport but budget constraints are said to be a problem.