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AFRICA

Morocco and South Africa renew war of words over Western Sahara

Sahrawi soldiers take part in a parade during festivities to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), in Tifariti, Western Sahara on 27 February 2009. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a partially recognised state which claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. EPA/STR

Pretoria is not happy with a Moroccan article condemning its ‘sclerotic, ideological position’ on what it calls ‘the last colony on the African continent’. 

A new spat has erupted between South Africa and Morocco in their long-running feud about the political status of the Western Sahara, which Morocco claims as its southern province but which South Africa and the African Union recognise as an independent, though occupied, country, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

The latest row was sparked by an article by the Moroccan Press Agency (MAP) which said that South Africa had been completely isolated during a UN Security Council meeting on the Western Sahara in New York on April 9 last week because of its “sclerotic ideological position” on the issue. 

At the video meeting on April 9, South Africa had essentially reiterated its frequent insistence that the UN should stick to its original 1991 resolution to hold a referendum on the independence of Western Sahara – while Morocco insists that the UN Security Council has long ago abandoned the idea of a referendum and is now counting on political negotiations to resolve the dispute. 

South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco)  and the Moroccan embassy in Pretoria entered the fray this week by launching strongly-worded statements against each other. 

The South African government’s response to the MAP article suggests that it believes the article represents the Moroccan government’s position, though Pretoria did not say that explicitly and nor was the article presented as such. 

Nonetheless, Dirco said it wanted to correct the attempt to “caricature South Africa’s principled stance” on Morocco’s “occupation” and “colonisation” of Western Sahara and also to correct the attempt to portray South Africa’s position as “being out of step with the majority of nations in the world”. 

Dirco added that even if South Africa’s position was a minority view – “which is not the case” – “our foreign policy in relation to occupation, decolonisation and human rights abuses will always be based on principle and not, expediency”.

It said the closed video conference on April 9 was called to consider recent developments in the Western Sahara and to receive a report on the work of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso). It said Minurso had been created in 1991 primarily to monitor the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front which was fighting for Western Saharan independence, and to organise and ensure a free and fair referendum in the territory. 

The MAP article claimed that South Africa’s “sad spectacle” at the April 9 meeting had ended with the other Security Council members rejecting its proposal for a press statement on the Western Sahara briefing, which MAP said had been “an unprecedented blow” for Pretoria. 

Dirco concurred that the Security Council had been unable to agree on a common position at the meeting but added that it was unfortunate that the council had not agreed to issue a press statement as was the usual practice after closed video teleconferences, to ensure transparency in its work. 

“South Africa particularly regrets that the Security Council has not been able to move the peace process forward. This is unfortunate as the people of Western Sahara continue to endure the occupation and their struggle for their right to self-determination is prolonged.

“The issue of Western Sahara has been on the agenda of the United Nations for decades as Western Sahara remains the last colony on the African continent, listed as a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations.” 

Dirco noted that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had found that Western Sahara was an occupied territory and that “Morocco is an occupying force in that territory”.

It also noted that the African Union had consistently supported the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

The MAP article also accused South Africa of trying to “instrumentalize” the Covid-19 pandemic by “alleging” that Morocco had responsibilities to the Western Saharan people in the crisis. In response, Dirco firmly reiterated its position, calling on Morocco, “to fulfil its responsibility as the occupying power by ensuring the necessary access, and unhindered passage of humanitarian and medical supplies, to the territories that it occupies”. 

In a statement on Tuesday, the Moroccan embassy said Dirco’s description of the Western Sahara as “the last colony in Africa” was “completely at odds with the reality as established at the United Nations”. 

It said none of around 70 UN Security Council resolutions or 120 reports of the UN Secretary General on the dispute had ever referred to Morocco as an occupying power, nor to the Western Sahara as a colony or an occupied territory. 

South Africa’s reference to “occupation” was “a political and ideological opinion with no legal basis”.

The embassy insisted that before the colonial era “the Sahara” was part of Morocco.

And it said the majority of countries in the world had expressed support for Morocco’s plan for autonomy rather than independence for Western Sahara. 

“Therefore, the dispute over the Sahara is not about decolonization but about the territorial integrity of Morocco. You cannot decolonize what is not a colony.” 

Morocco also said that in 2000, the then-UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, had concluded that a referendum on the future of Western Sahara was “inapplicable” and had instead called on the parties to the dispute to work towards a political solution. 

“Not a single UN Security Council resolution ever called to organize a referendum over the past 20 years.”

It added that the UN was today pursuing this approach through roundtable meetings among the interested parties, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario in Geneva. 

Two have been held so far, in December 2018 and March 2019, but without resolving the dispute. Morocco insists that the UN Security Council is the only international body authorised to deal with the Western Saharan issue. It enjoys the support there of permanent members, especially France and to a lesser extent the US.

Conversely, South Africa frequently invokes the AU, which in 1984 – when it was still the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – officially recognised the SADR as the legitimate government of the Western Sahara. This prompted Morocco to walk out of the OAU but it returned to the AU in 2017. 

In 2004, South Africa officially recognised the SADR as the legitimate government of Western Sahara. Rabat recalled its ambassador and it was only last year that Morocco restored the head of its embassy in Pretoria to full ambassador level. South Africa still does not have a full ambassador in Rabat. DM

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