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South Africa tries to breathe new life into East African relations

South Africa tries to breathe new life into East African relations
President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Samia Suluhu Hassan of the United Republic of Tanzania hold a Tête-à-tête during a State Visit at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. [Photo: GCIS]

Beneficial bilateral ties as well as regional issues with East Africa have been neglected by Pretoria.

Back-to-back state visits to South Africa by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni a fortnight ago and Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan this week were not coincidental. “We are trying to resuscitate our relations with East Africa,” said a South African official who requested anonymity. “They have been neglected for too long.”

Indeed the last state visit from Museveni to South Africa was 11 years ago. And in Tanzania’s case, the last trip by then president Jakaya Kikwete was in 2011. The rather autarkic tendencies of his successor, the late president John Magufuli, probably contributed to the lack of high-level contact since then. However, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa did travel to Dodoma in 2019. 

State visits between South Africa and Kenya have been a bit more frequent. Then president Uhuru Kenyatta was in Pretoria in November 2021, and Ramaphosa reciprocated with a trip to meet the new President William Ruto a year later.

Given the economic importance of South Africa and the East African region, the “neglect” has been quite costly. In a joint communiqué after their meeting, Ramaphosa and Museveni decried the decline in South Africa’s business presence in Uganda and created a mechanism to address the problem. 

Business sources told ISS Today anonymously that about half the 70-odd South African companies in Uganda had withdrawn over the past few years. The reasons appear to be mostly Museveni’s introduction of measures to protect Ugandan business, including local content requirements.

Given the economic importance of SA and East Africa, the ‘neglect’ in relations has been costly

The two presidents also lamented that the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement (TFTA) still wasn’t operational – eight years after it was signed – because insufficient countries had ratified it. The TFTA intends to amalgamate the Southern African Development Community (SADC), East African Community (EAC) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. The apparent lack of enthusiasm for free trade doesn’t bode well for the African Continental Free Trade Area. Ramaphosa, Museveni and Hassan said they hoped their countries would benefit from free trade. 

South African business interests in East Africa privately say they haven’t had the same protectionist problems in Tanzania or Kenya as in Uganda, though commerce between the two countries could be better. About 220 business leaders from both countries participated in a business forum during Hassan’s visit. 

Hassan has certainly enabled political and civil society dialogue between the two countries by easing up on repressive measures that Magufuli imposed. The same cannot be said of Museveni, and Ramaphosa took some flak from human rights defenders for hosting a leader who is clamping down on political opponents and the gay community. 

In regional politics, there has also been much to discuss. Tanzanian and South African soldiers are fighting shoulder to shoulder in the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the SADC Mission in Mozambique (Samim). Yet South Africa was apparently surprised when Tanzania deployed 300 police officers into Mozambique’s strife-torn Cabo Delgado province late in 2022.

Ramaphosa discussed the chronic instability in eastern DRC with Museveni and Hassan, though they didn’t reveal the content of their talks. One consequence of the rather distant communications is that when the EAC peacekeeping force to eastern DRC was announced in 2022, South Africa – and apparently much of SADC – seemed taken off guard.

Hassan has enabled dialogue with South Africa by easing up on Magufuli’s repressive measures.

It’s hard to imagine that the eastern DRC discussions didn’t also cover Rwanda, which the DRC and others have accused of providing military and other support to the revived M23 rebels. When the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) marched into eastern DRC 10 years ago, it was widely seen as SADC helping its member state DRC fend off Rwanda by taking on its proxy, the M23 – which the FIB successfully did.

The clock seems to have been turned back a decade, with Rwanda again accused of bolstering a revived M23 in a still-chaotic region. Rwanda’s apparent aggression is an issue for many, particularly South Africa, because of Kigali’s many assassination attempts against its political opponents exiled in the country.

Pretoria was publicly unhappy with Rwanda’s intervention in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province – one jump ahead of Samim. ‘They are certainly worried that Rwanda is getting to secure all the areas with the extractive resources in Mozambique,’ observed one analyst who requested anonymity. ‘Rwanda is also in the CAR. Rwanda is going it alone on the peacekeeping front and therein lies the biggest threat for SA, I think.’

Former South African diplomat Welile Nhlapo told ISS Today it is now being suggested that Angola – which has been involved in eastern DRC peace efforts through the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) – might also deploy peacekeepers there. This would further complicate the situation.

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He noted that nearly 30 years of instability in eastern DRC lies at the root of the wider region’s problems. It derives from Rwanda but also the DRC’s inability to extend governance over all of its territory. ‘So all of us should be concerned about what’s happening in the DRC,’ Nhlapo says, particularly with elections coming up and no clear picture of how they’ll play out. 

The UN, African Union (AU) and regional bodies – SADC, EAC, Economic Community of Central African States, and the ICGLR – should agree on a mechanism to coordinate responses and find a common solution, he says. That sounds like the 2013 Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the region agreed to by all parties the last time the M23 flared up in eastern DRC.

In the communiqué after their 16 March meeting, Ramaphosa and Hassan commended the SADC and the EAC for deploying forces in the DRC, and welcomed the AU Peace and Security Council meeting on 17 February. That meeting reaffirmed the 2013 framework as “a viable instrument” and asked the AU, in collaboration with regional bodies and the UN, to “urgently work towards the revitalisation of the framework agreement”.

Paul-Simon Handy, the Institute for Security Studies’ regional director for East Africa and representative to the AU, recently called for that framework to be properly implemented. Perhaps, as Nhlapo suggests, what is needed now is a swift decision about who exactly should coordinate that effort. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today


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