Suspicion and secrecy surround South Africa’s dealings with South Sudan

The deal looked dodgy from the start. Just days before South Africa’s general election in May, outgoing energy minister Jeff Radebe popped up in Juba, where he signed an agreement to prospect for oil reportedly worth $1-billion. But neither he nor his South Sudanese counterparts revealed the exact nature of the deal. We still don’t know where all the money will come from or where it will go. And no one has explained why the contract had to be signed in such haste and secrecy.

READ MORE: There are better ways for SA to assist South Sudan than military cooperation

The contract itself has not been made public, despite an official request from the Democratic Alliance. It is far from clear that the deal fits in with South Africa’s long-term energy strategy, or that there is any convincing economic case for making South Sudanese oil part of South Africa’s energy mix.

This near-total lack of transparency is even more concerning given that South Sudan is embroiled in a civil war, and that its government is both notoriously corrupt and an egregious abuser of human rights.

A prominent lawyer at the heart of the deal is a convicted fraudster. NJ Ayuk, also called Njock Ajuk Eyong, was deported from the United States after being found guilty of impersonating a congressman. He has been accused in Ghana of laundering $2.5-million in that country, an allegation he denies.

Although Eyong’s involvement certainly does not prove that something is amiss, it is likely to amplify the suspicions already surrounding the deal.

This is not the only murky chapter in South Africa’s recent relationship with South Sudan. In January 2018, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula travelled to Juba to sign a memorandum of understanding with her South Sudanese counterpart, Kuol Manyang Juuk. Its text has not been made public.

As the Mail & Guardian wrote last year: “[Juuk] oversees the army, which is implicated in some of the most brutal human rights violations of the 21st century … 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 … which envisages that the South African and South Sudanese armies will conduct joint military exercises, training and capacity building, according to the minister.”

READ MORE: South Africa takes sides in South Sudan

Also last year, Deputy President David Mabuza travelled to Khartoum, and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was welcomed by President Cyril Ramaphosa for an official state visit, which is hard to read as anything other than a ringing endorsement.

South Africa has taken a very different — but no less mysterious — approach to South Sudan’s opposition. In late 2016 or early 2017 South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar found himself being kept as a “guest” of the South African government, in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The department of international relations and co-operation said that Machar was worried about his safety, and was there for his own protection. But Machar’s family said that he was being kept there against his will.

READ MORE: Kiir urges rival Machar to return to South Sudan

The Intergovernmental Authority for Development, the regional economic community for the Horn of Africa, later confirmed that the South African government was lying, and that Machar was indeed being kept under house arrest.

Why did South Africa keep Machar under house arrest, and deny it? Why is it partnering with one of the most brutal and abusive militaries on the African continent? Why is it signing secretive oil deals that don’t appear to make any economic sense?

We don’t know the answer to any of these questions but, with $1-billion at stake, they need to be asked.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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