The South African presidency has decided to remain mum on the decision by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Constitutional Court to exclude the popular Jean-Pierre Bemba from the country’s upcoming elections.
The court ruled on Monday that Bemba, a former warlord and vice-president of the DRC, is excluded from running in the presidential elections which are due to take place in December this year.
The decision to ban him from standing for election stems from an earlier witness tampering conviction at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Bemba had been touted as one of the most credible threats to President Joseph Kabila’s party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). Kabila has been in power for 17 years and the country had braced itself for him to run yet again, in breach of a two-term limit. But he surprised many by instead backing former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to be his successor.
South Africa has a vested interest in DRC, having been instrumental in brokering peace in that country. Part of the negotiations saw South Africa hosting both Bemba and Kabila, then at the helm of the two most powerful armies in the country.
The South African government is walking a fine line with the DRC after President Cyril Ramaphosa – who also chairs the Southern African Development Community – appointed former president Thabo Mbeki as special envoy to the DRC last month, a move rejected by officials from the DRC.
Kabila’s foreign policy adviser Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi told media that his government would not be accrediting any special envoys to the country because the envoys of the past from different regions had not served in the DRC’s best interests.
When the Mail & Guardian approached the South African presidency for comment on Bemba’s rebuff by the courts, spokesperson Khusela Diko redirected requests for comment to Dirco, which in turn responded by describing the ruling as a “domestic matter” that they cannot speak to.
Several members of the United Nations Security Council, including Britain, France and the Netherlands, have said the UN is ready to offer logistical aid for the election but Kinshasa has rejected all offers of support.
This and the rejection of Mbeki as a special envoy has raised concerns among the international community that Kabila was trying to remove as much scrutiny of the December elections as possible.
Mbeki was the key broker in ending the DRC’s 1998-2003 conflict and the launch of a government of national-unity.
International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said last week that Mbeki was asked to offer general support to the South African government on how to deal with issues around the DRC’s upcoming election.
Sisulu said he would “support us in our understanding of how to deal with the issues around the Great Lakes, because of his vast experience and knowledge of the area”.
The presidency confirmed that Mbeki had agreed and said a formal announcement would be made once his role had been finalised.
The controversy of Bemba
Bemba had declared his candidacy for president after making a triumphant return home last month, with tens of thousands of supporters turning out to greet him in the capital Kinshasa.
This after the ICC in June overturned Bemba’s 2016 conviction and 18-year jail term for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his troops in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2003.
Appeals judges ruled that the original sentence imposed for corruption was too low and a new hearing is scheduled for September 17.