On Tuesday, Jacob Zuma hosted his counterpart Joseph Kabila from the DRC. The presidential guest house (no, not Nkandla) was used to full effect as the two leaders did a great job of swapping niceties, but neither took the chance to seriously address either the contentious or the encouraging issues which link their countries. By SIMON ALLISON.
In the middle of Pretoria, on a few acres of prime land between the Union Buildings and the Department of International Relations, is the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House. This is no ordinary guest house with a self-important name and delusions of grandeur. It is the presidential guest house, the place where visiting heads of state and their overly-large entourages are shown the very finest in South African government hospitality.
The lush, verdant estate sprawls over a hill offering magnificent views across the capital, its narrow roads lined with purple Jacarandas in bloom. There’s a perfectly-manicured football field, a small golf course and a tennis court in a state of some disrepair: Africa’s leaders are not partial to racquet sports. Dotted around the lawns are elegant, whitewashed colonial buildings with wooden-shuttered windows and red tile roofs. On one of them, the old South African coat of arms is still sculpted into the plaster.
It was to this oasis that President Joseph-Desire Kabila (overly-large entourage in tow) of the Democratic Republic of Congo arrived on Tuesday. He didn’t overnight here, of course; that would be too straightforward. Apparently there’s a completely separate presidential guest house for that. This one is just for meetings.
Kabila has been in the news a lot recently. Just after the international furore over his deeply flawed re-election in November last year died down, a militant group in the east of his large and poorly-governed country re-ignited a long-running rebellion, which Kabila’s army has failed to quell. Making things even worse is that all evidence points to deep involvement in the rebellion from Rwanda and Uganda; and, over the DRC’s strident objections, Rwanda has just been elected to the United Nations Security Council.
Given that South Africa has nearly 2,000 soldiers stationed in the eastern DRC, the conflict there and the unstable regional dynamics would surely have been at the top of agenda as Kabila was officially received by his South African counterpart, President Jacob Zuma (it should be noted at this point that Kabila is yet another foreign head of state that was not received at Nkandla).
Perhaps the conflict was at the top of the agenda. We don’t really know, because all journalists were given was a staged photo opportunity and bland, meaningless opening statements. Neither president took any questions.
Even the final communiqué, when it was read out by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, contained little of substance. The presidents “reviewed” issues; they “expressed satisfaction” with unspecified projects; they “reiterated their commitment” to “enhancing cooperation”. Inspiring stuff, no doubt, but too short on details and numbers to actually mean anything.
This was unfortunate. There are plenty of issues involving the two countries that were of great interest to the waiting press pack, and probably even to the public as a whole. And these aren’t all controversial, in the way commenting on the DRC’s eastern rebellion might be (incidentally, this was dismissed with an ambiguous condemnation of “those forces that are involved in destabilizing a sovereign state”; conspicuously, Rwanda was not mentioned).
Take South Africa’s commitment to the construction of the Grand Inga Dam, as outlined in a memorandum of understanding signed last year. This has the potential to be a win-win situation for both countries: the massive hydroelectric project would solve the DRC’s energy needs and give it a valuable export, while South Africa would be assured of thousands of extra megawatts of desperately needed power. But how will the dam, estimated to cost around $80-billion, be financed? Who will manage it? And what exactly is South Africa’s role in the project? Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters told reporters afterwards that technical teams from the two countries would meet in November to thrash out the details. This, however, is a full year after the signing of the memorandum of understanding; it would have been nice to see a little more progress in that time, and a few more concrete plans announced by the presidents.
Then there’s the deal signed on Tuesday during the bilateral meeting between the two state-run oil companies, PetroSA and Cohydro. The deal is meant to signal cooperation in all areas of the hydrocarbon supply chain, and should give PetroSA a potentially lucrative foot in the door of the DRC’s as yet untapped (and unproven) oil reserves. But although it was signed with a flourish, it is also long on rhetoric and short on commitment. As PetroSA’s group CEO Nosizwe Nokwe explained, the agreement is more a statement of intent than a contract. “We shall assess each opportunity as they come,” she said, confirming also that it was not in any way an exclusive deal – the DRC can and is entering into similar agreements with other countries, which seems to undermine any competitive advantage PetroSA thinks it has.
Fortunately for all concerned, the day of fuzzy promises and protocol-dictated niceties ended with something a little more substantial – a state banquet, where diplomats and officials (not journalists) enjoyed a proudly South African spread of lamb chops, oxtail and mogodu, accompanied by fine red wine in crystal glasses and followed with chocolate cake and milk tart. You might be able to fault South Africa’s vague foreign policy, but you can’t fault our hospitality. DM
Photo: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (R) and his Democratic Republic of Congo's counterpart Joseph Kabila arrive at the opening of the Heads of Southern African Development Community (SADC) states meeting in Kinshasa, September 7, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Hubert