The Congolese crisis: time for SA take its head out of the sand

By Khadija Patel 13 July 2012

As United Nations troops lent a hand to embattled Congolese forces fighting the onslaught of rebel troops in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and neighbouring states called on Thursday for the creation of an international military force to eliminate armed rebels in eastern Congo. Notably missing, however, has been any South African input. By KHADIJA PATEL.

This weekend, South Africa will be looking searchingly at members of the African Union, hoping somehow to notch enough votes to oust African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping. Unlike the last election, which proved a disastrous demonstration of South African soft power, this time around, South African diplomats will be better prepared to recall favours.

On paper, the likes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could be seen to “owe” South Africa. Besides South African efforts to broker peace that culminated in the Sun City agreement in 2002, South Africa also contributed 1,200 soldiers to the United Nations peacekeeping mission (Monusco). And because all is fair in love and war, South African businesses have perhaps been the best advantaged by relative peace in the DRC. Visiting Kinshasa late last month, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Elizabeth Thabethe said, “Two-way trade between South Africa and the DRC stood at R7.8 billion in 2011, compared to R6.2 billion in 2010 and R4.8 billion in 2009. This demonstrates a steady growth in trade between the two countries, although the trade balance is still skewed in favour of South Africa.”

Then, during the contentious presidential election last year, the South African government spent a whopping R126 million “assisting” electoral efforts, earning suspicion that South Africa had its interests best secured by another term in office for Joseph Kabila. The South African government rubbished the claims, peddling the well-used line, “We don’t interfere in the internal politics of a sovereign state.” For all the trouble, you’d think South Africa would be well assured of the allegiance of the Congolese in the run for the African Union’s top job.

The AU summit in January saw the DRC side against South Africa. Diplomats, however, shrugged off the Congolese intransigence, saying if Kabila had himself attended the summit, South Africa would have been ensured of the Congolese vote. As it happened, Kabila was still battling to withstand the threat of a fallout from his re-election and instead, his foreign minister attended the meeting and voted for the incumbent candidate Jean Ping.

As South Africa heads into the business end of the AU summit this weekend, the situation in the eastern Congo – where South Africa’s peacekeeping troops are based, incidentally – is particularly strained. But instead of grasping the opportunity to say something about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation that has seen 200,000 Congolese displaced, South Africa has chosen instead to keep to its characteristically taciturn disposition in times of crisis. Even after a United Nations Group of Experts report on the DRC alleged that Rwanda was supporting the rebel M23 movement, South Africa – as a member of the United Nations Security Council – withheld comment.

From the outside, then, it appears as though the South African government is once more dithering in response to an urgent matter on the African continent. South African diplomats have yet to publicly pronounce their stance on the allegations of the UN report, telling of another possible communication failure in South African diplomacy. But sources within the Department of International Relations and Cooperation beg to differ – indicating that South Africa has already invested much time and effort working behind the scenes to find the least disastrous outcome for the conflict.

Significantly, South Africa does not take a contrarian approach to the claims made against Rwanda in the United Nations Group of Experts Report; South African diplomats actually endorse the claims made in the UN report.

Jason Stearns, himself a former member of the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC, explains exactly what these allegations are: “The (Rwandan) support they document consists of providing ammunition and guns, health care, training, and new recruits. They also provide details of meetings organised by top Rwandan officials, including senior defence ministry representatives, to mobilise Congolese business and politicians to join M23. They claim that the Rwandan government has used its demobilisation commission networks to mobilise ex-combatants, many of whom used to fight in the FDLR, as well as allowing recruitment to happen in the refugee camps largely populated by Congolese Tutsi. Most egregiously, they report that Rwanda has sent its own army into the Congo to support the mutiny on several occasions.

“The group mentions individuals within the Rwandan government by name, saying that the following people played key roles: Defence Minister General James Kabarebe; the Defence Force’s Chief of Staff, General Charles Kayonga; the Permanent Secretary of the ministry of Defence, General Jack Nziza; and Rwandan army division commander General Emmanuel Ruvusha. These officers have attended mobilisation meetings, been in direct contact with mutineers, and have been seen organising logistical support to the M23.”

DIRCO sources, however, go even further, saying there are also English speaking officers in the M23 ranks, a claim that further incriminates Rwanda. South African concerns are now chiefly centred on the situation in the eastern city of Goma. Following MONUSCO’s announcement this week that it had taken measures to bolster its presence in the DRC, South African intelligence sources in Goma reportedly believe there are M23 sleeper cells laying in wait. Privately, South African officials concede that they worry this conflict could turn into a brutal, ethnic conflict that would see the Rwandans move in to “save their people” and never leave.

South Africa’s public reticence, then, can quite possibly be attributed to the AU election. The possibility of antagonising Rwanda against South Africa was perhaps too great to risk so close to the election. And yet all these concerns seem to be significantly watered down now, following the agreement signed by the Great Lakes countries – including DRC and Rwanda – on the sidelines of the AU summit; the proposal of an internationally-backed military response to the conflict in North Kivu.

It really does seem like a neatly packaged African solution for an African problem.

But is it too good to be true? DM


  • Under scrutiny: South Africa’s role in DRC elections in Daily Maverick;
  • DRC and Rwanda: The heart of darkness keeps getting darker in Daily Maverick

Photo: Displaced Congolese families trek back into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) side of Bunagana after spending a night across the border in Uganda, July 10, 2012. Rebels in Congo said on July 6 they had seized the eastern DRC town of Bunagana on the border with Uganda after days of fierce fighting with government troops during which a U.N. peacekeeper was killed and thousands of residents displaced. REUTERS/James Akena


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