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Op-Ed: The state capture of SA’s foreign policy

Op-Ed: The state capture of SA’s foreign policy

Recent comments made by former Cosatu chief Zwelinzima Vavi seem to prove what everyone has long suspected: that South Africa's foreign policy is all too often dictated by business rather than diplomatic interests. By PETER FABRICIUS for ISS TODAY.

This article was first published on ISS Today, a publication of the Institute for Security Studies.

It’s long been suspected that the domestic ‘state capture’ under the Zuma administration, which is so much in the news currently, also applies very much to South Africa’s foreign relations. Former Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi’s recent disclosures about President Jacob Zuma’s relationship with Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema have now reinforced those suspicions.

Vavi told the Sunday Times that in October 2008, Jacob Zuma – just after Thabo Mbeki had been ousted as national president but before he himself became president – arranged a secret business meeting with Obiang for his son Duduzane Zuma and Duduzane’s business partner, Rajesh Gupta.

This happened while Zuma was on an official visit to Equatorial Guinea to attend the country’s independence celebrations. Vavi said he and South African Communist Party Secretary-General Blade Nzimande, both of whom Zuma had invited on the trip ostensibly to discuss his upcoming first Cabinet appointments, were “incensed” because they were instead left “twiddling their thumbs” while the Zuma father and son, the Gupta brother and Obiang discussed their private business interests.

This incident confirmed “the complete capture of the ANC [African National Congress]”, Vavi said. Apart from the implications of influence-peddling and nepotism which this alleged incident raises, there are also the important questions of whether and how such private business interests might be influencing South Africa’s relations with Equatorial Guinea.

These seem to have been cool before Zuma, under the Mandela and Mbeki administrations – as would be expected, given Obiang’s unsavoury reputation as a de facto dictator (despite holding elections, which he routinely rigged) who brutally represses political opposition and media, and who has siphoned off much of his country’s oil wealth into private offshore bank accounts. But relations warmed up considerably after Zuma took over. A year after the trip Vavi referred to, Zuma paid the first visit to Equatorial-Guinea by a South African president when he received “a warm and tremendous welcome to the country”, according to a joint communiqué.

In October 2011, Obiang reciprocated with his first state visit to South Africa. One of the striking things about that visit was how Zuma unreservedly supported Obiang’s highly controversial bid to endow a Unesco International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences worth $3-million.

This bid – transparently an attempt by Obiang to burnish his poor reputation – was widely opposed by human rights defenders, including Desmond Tutu. They said it would taint Unesco – the United Nations (UN) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – to have a prize named after Obiang, who had violated so many of the values which Unesco stood for, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The issue was a hot topic during Obiang’s visit to South Africa in 2011. The Unesco board has recently suspended approval of the prize, pending further deliberation.

Zuma dismissed Obiang’s critics as racists and neocolonialists, and commended him for his “dynamism and determination in implementing his government’s developmental programmes, which are aimed at uplifting the lives of the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea”. Rather rich praise for a dictator who has kept most of his people still mired in poverty, despite the enormous oil wealth which has lifted its per capita income to developed world levels.

Vavi recalled that Duduzane Zuma and Rajesh Gupta had arrived in Equatorial Guinea via Angola and the Central African Republic (CAR) back in October 2008. Private and ruling party business interests are also suspected to explain some of Pretoria’s interests in CAR especially.

In March 2013, as we know, 15 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers died in a clash with Séléka rebels on the outskirts of Bangui as the rebels raced to topple President Francois Bozizé and seize control of the country. Why exactly South African troops were propping up Bozizé, another leader hardly worth fighting for, has never been adequately explained.

But the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported at the time that the ANC had substantial business interests in CAR, especially in diamonds, through its funding front Chancellor House and through certain politically connected business people. This notably included Didier Pereira, who was then Bozizé’s security adviser and who is connected to key ANC personalities such as Paul Langa, Joshua “General” Nxumalo and former spy chief Billy Masetlha. “Is this what our soldiers died for?” the Mail & Guardian pertinently asked.

It was also notable how quickly Zuma thawed the frosty relations between South Africa and Angola, paying his first state visit there three months after being elected president in 2009. And there have been many suggestions that private or party financial interests coloured South Africa’s relations with Gaddafi’s Libya – as they coloured Gaddafi’s relations with many other African governments.

In 2012, Mahmoud Jibril – who had been interim Prime Minister of the Libyan government opposing Gaddafi in 2011 – told Al Arabiya television that Zuma had first agreed to pressure Gaddafi to resign but then had backed off because Gaddafi had agreed to fund the ANC’s local government election campaign.

Last year, Jibril acknowledged to ISS Today that he had no proof of the accusation of monetary persuasion, but that he still could not explain why Zuma – who at the time was engaged in secret peace negotiations with him to try to resolve the conflict – had done such a sudden about-turn on Gaddafi’s resignation.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is another country where the motives for South Africa’s deep involvement are a little hazy.

In May 2014, City Press reported that President Zuma had used his influence to get DRC President Joseph Kabila to grant his nephew Khulubuse Zuma two highly lucrative oilfields on the country’s border with Uganda in 2010.

Kabila took the oilfields – with an estimated lifetime value of R100-billion – from Irish oil giant Tullow Oil and gave them to Foxwhelp and Caprikat, two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands by Khulubuse Zuma.

City Press quoted military analyst André Roux, formerly of the Institute for Security Studies, as suggesting that this oil deal was a reward from Kabila to South Africa for helping him stabilise the eastern DRC so his government could reap the benefits of the rich natural resources there.

This referred to South Africa’s military involvement in the DRC, particularly its vital contribution to the UN’s Stabilisation Mission in the DRC’s Force Intervention Brigade, sent into the eastern DRC to neutralise “negative forces” which, among other things, were plundering those natural resources.

Apart from all the many issues this alleged deal raises about influence-peddling, capture of foreign policy by the first family and nepotism, it also raises serious questions about the welfare and development of the Congolese people. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out in his Africa Progress Report in 2013, the DRC loses tremendous amounts of government revenue by selling such mining concessions at way below their real value to connected individuals (the implication being that a lot of the money returns as kickbacks).

The report said that between 2010 and 2012, five such under-priced mining concessions were sold in “highly opaque and secretive deals” costing the country US$1.3-billion in revenues, equivalent to double the DRC’s health and education budgets combined.

Some might also see Zuma’s excessive number of political appointees to South African ambassadorships – among the highest in the world – as another manifestation of “state capture”, of the use of state resources to resolve political problems such as dumping unwanted security officials and the like.

In many of the instances cited, the charge of “state capture” would be hard to press. Even more than in domestic politics, the wellsprings and motives of foreign relations are very hard to trace.

For one veteran ANC official though, there is no doubt what is happening. “We are exporting state capture,” he quipped sardonically this week.

Vavi told the Sunday Times that he would be reporting the Equatorial Guinea incident to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to be included in her intended probe into alleged state capture by the Gupta family. But the allegations of the “export” of state capture go beyond the Guptas. They require investigation into all foreign deals by the government where private or party – rather than national – interests are suspected to have been at play. DM

Photo: President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang (L) and his wife Constancia Mangue (R) during the state funeral for Spanish former Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez held at the Almudena’s cathedral in Madrid, Spain, 31 March 2014. EPA/BALLESTEROS / POOL POOL

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