Denial is SA’s game on Libya

By Sipho Hlongwane 22 August 2011

“I’m perplexed as to where these questions come from,” international relations and cooperation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane responded  to questions from journalists at a hastily convened press conference in Johannesburg on Monday. Dirco didn’t know where Muammar Gaddafi was, she claimed. South Africa has no plans to evacuate Brother Leader and the government is still stubbornly taking its cues on Libya from the African Union. By KHADIJA PATEL & SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The South African department of international relations and co-operation was caught abruptly off-guard by the rapidly escalating situation in Libya. After announcing on Saturday that President Jacob Zuma would travel to Addis Ababa to meet with the African Union’s high level committee on Libya, Dirco certainly did not anticipate celebratory gunfire in Tripoli this soon. While South Africa took time to offer an official response to the rebels claiming central Tripoli, rumours of Gaddafi’s whereabouts began circulating wildly.

First, an overenthusiastic Libyan in exile announced Gaddafi had been shot. No sooner had this rumour made its way around the world, than another emerged placing Gaddafi in Algeria. Yet another rumour emerged insisting Gaddafi had fled to his hometown of Sirte. Then, the rumour mill outdid itself. In a prolonged moment of déjà vu, Al Jazeera reported that two South African planes had landed in Tripoli to evacuate Gaddafi to South Africa. Just as South Africans erupted in indignation at the news, Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela smoothed the ruffled feathers by firmly quashing rumours linking Gaddafi with political exile in South Africa.

“Rumours that Gadaffi may be coming to South Africa are not true,” Monyela said. Still the rumours persisted, amended now to predict that South Africa had arrived in Libya to ferry Gaddafi not to South Africa, as had originally been suggested, but to Gaddafi’s choice of either Zimbabwe or Angola.

In response, Nkoana-Mashabane came out fighting on Monday morning. With the world’s attention riveted on South Africa to reveal the whereabouts of Gaddafi, she promptly refuted claims that the country had sent planes to Libya to ferry “individuals to undisclosed locations”. She insisted that while the South African government was in contact with both sides of the Libyan conflict until a week ago, South Africa “does not know the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi”.

Did South Africa have planes on the ground in Tripoli to evacuate Muammar Gaddafi? Nkoana-Mashabane stressed a plane had been sent to evacuate South Africans who had been stranded in Libya – something South Africa does, she insisted, in every conflict zone on the continent.

Intriguingly, Dirco’s assertion that it had sent a plane to evacuate the Libyan embassy staff who had been relocated to Tunisia was contradicted by ambassador Mohammed Dangor.  Quoted by Al Jazeera, Dangor said, “I have no knowledge of any South African planes in Tripoli … but Nato should know, since they control the airport and no plane can land without their permission.” Dangor went on to deny allegations that he had left on a South African defence aircraft, insisting that he left Djerba on a World Food Programme jet before making his way to Tunis, Dubai and finally Johannesburg. According to the minister, a South African jet is still on the tarmac in Tunisia, but we dare not speculate that the plane is on stand-by for Gaddafi.

Asked whether South Africa would recognise the Benghazi-led Transitional National Council (the rebel army), the minister was quick to clarify that in the eventuality of the Tripoli government falling, as far as South Africa was concerned, there would then be no government in Libya. The TNC as well as Tripoli elements, would have to form a transitional government that the African Union and South Africa could recognise.

When  she was asked whether Nato’s actions in Libya could have contributed to the fall of Gaddafi, Nkoana-Mashabane immediately perked up. She said she would be embarrassed to support an action that led to the deaths of Libyan citizens. If only Nato had got with the African Union plan, there would have a lot less bloodshed. If only.

And so it went on. Nkoana Mashabane denied just about every contention that came her way.

The most emphatic statement from her was a stubborn insistence that nobody in the Gaddafi government was trying to negotiate asylum for him in South Africa. In fact, South Africa believed the Colonel wouldn’t be asking for asylum in South Africa at all. Questions about whether South Africa would refuse a plea for asylum from Gaddafi were then pointless.

Despite disagreeing with Nato’s actions, Nkoana-Mashabane believed the African Union would be the international party that would help chart Libya’s long-term strategy. “Libya is an integral part of the African Union,” she said. “The experience we’ve had from Iraq to Afghanistan is that visitors come and go. Citizens of a country and region are the ones who stay behind and have to deal with the problems. That’s what makes the AU roadmap relevant today and tomorrow – visitors will come and go.”

What is clear is that South Africa and the AU are now manoeuvring to deal with a Libya without Gaddafi. Nkoana-Mashabane said the South African government had pledged to help Libya restore and rehabilitate itself, but stopped short of specifying what form that help would take. She was at pains to emphasise that a decision on what should happen next lay with the people of Libya and nobody else. “The Libyans themselves must be given an opportunity to decide the future of Libya, including that of Colonel Gaddafi himself,” she said.

According to the minister, the AU roadmap demanded the immediate suspension of hostilities, a durable ceasefire, the TNC and elements of the Tripoli government to form a transitional government with its most immediate task being the drafting of a new interim constitution, and then democratic elections.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is pretty much what happened to South Africa when it transitioned from being an apartheid state to an open democracy. South Africa seems to be trying to emulate that blueprint in other conflict zones across Africa, with little success. Nkoana-Mashabane contended that the South African stance on Libya stemmed from the African Union. “The roadmap that I’m outlining is not a South African roadmap. It was drafted and outlined by 53 AU member states. When there’s conflict in Africa, African leaders always insist on bringing in a South African delegation as part of the peace process,” she said.

What South Africa will do next will depend a lot on how quickly Gaddafi’s status is sorted out (whether he’s dead, captured or out of the country) and also where Nato decides to place itself. Nkoana-Mashabane did not categorically deny that South Africa had feet on the ground in Libya, so the possibility it could still influence the outcome of the conflict remains very strong. DM


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