The special relationship

South Africa may be Kabila’s closest bilateral ally and represents a key lifeline for his continued grip on power.

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, and Joseph Kabila, President of the DRC, (Government of South Africa Flickr CC).

On June 25 this year, DRC president Joseph Kabila traveled to South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, for the annual bi-national council between the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa (basically a regular cabinet-level meeting between two countries). Kabila is known for rarely leaving the country (aka his presidential residence). Some argue that it is due to fears surrounding his unpopularity for overstaying his presidential mandate, which officially ended last December. As a result, his eloquent foreign minister She Okitundu, one of the co-founders of the ruling PPRD, tours capitals for crisis-and donor-diplomacy on his behalf. But when it comes to South Africa, things are a bit different.

South Africa may be Kabila’s closest bilateral ally and represents a key lifeline for his continued grip on power. A key to preserving this lifeline has been Kabila’s close personal relationship with South African counterpart Jacob Zuma, and his “business partners.”

South Africa-DRC relations not only highlight the emerging moral bankruptcy of the African National Congress (ANC), but also serve as an embodiment of the malaise facing South African political life as a whole. In a recent podcast, Jason Stearns of the Congo Research Institute (he has published on this site too), and Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies in the UK, emphasized that South African policy towards the DRC is increasingly monopolized in the South African presidency, while the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassies are largely sidelined. This leads to a peculiar dynamic in which instead of pursuing South Africa’s national interests in the DRC, Zuma legitimizes the DRC’s government’s poor explanations for delaying elections, and tolerates increasing instability in the DRC.

Following the end of Apartheid, South Africa had somewhat successfully cultivated a moral high ground in intra-African affairs, which made it a preferred mediator in intra-African peace accords. This especially applies to the Great Lakes Region. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were heavily involved in the negotiation and signature of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2000, and in the signature of the Global Ceasefire Agreement between Burundi and the CNDD-FDD in 2003. A useful footnote is that at that time Jacob Zuma was South Africa’s Deputy President, and chief facilitator of the ceasefire negotiations. South Africa also played a key role in the facilitation of the Inter Congolese Dialogue (ICD), which cumulated in the signature of the Sun City Agreement (named after the infamous South African luxury casino resort), and paved the way for the DRC’s historic 2006 elections. Additionally, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has more than 1000 troops stationed in the eastern DRC as part of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which operates as part of MONUSCO. Given its legacy as mediator and contributor of peacekeeping troops, one would assume that South Africa has an immediate interest in promoting peaceful democratic transitions, and the rule of law. Yet, South Africa’s foreign policy in the region has increasingly facilitated the opposite. 

Following the discovery of mass graves and the displacement of 1.3 million people in the DRC’s Kasai region, South Africa watered down a strong call by the United Nations Human Rights Commission for an “international investigation”, and in effect legitimized the Congolese government’s opposition to such an investigation. Similarly, South Africa has allowed the South African Development Community (SADC) to take a hands-off approach on the Congolese electoral delay, but given the SADC’s poor track record in enforcing democratic accountability among member states, this should not come as a surprise.

With regards to the delay of elections in the DRC (that, according to the constitution were supposed to be held before December 2016), South Africa has given legitimacy to Kabila’s instrumentalization of political dialogues to fracture political opposition and buy time. This coincides with other major partners, such as the US and the EU implementing targeted sanctions against Kabila’s entourage, and key bilateral allies such as Angola openly criticizing the Kabila administration. Which may partly explain why Sindika Dokolo, the son-in-law of Angolan President Jose Dos Santos, was recently sentenced in absentia in a property dispute, a ruling which is widely seen as politically motivated following his vocal criticism of Kabila’s continued grip on power.

Along with its political involvement in the DRC, South Africa also has substantial economic interest and leverage in the country. Take the Grand Inga III project, whose timeline was recently pushed back further by the DRC government: South Africa is earmarked for 2,500MW of the project’s total expected production capacity of 4,800MW. South African mining firms also have a substantial presence in the mining of copper, cobalt and gold ore. In terms of economic leverage, South Africa is the largest exporter in goods and services to the DRC, providing 30% of total imports according to the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). The SAIIA also points out that South Africa’s government is the third-largest donor to the DRC in absolute terms, and leads donors in terms of development assistance as a percentage of GNI.

But similar to South Africa’s domestic economic policy making, national economic welfare can take a backseat to cronyism. Six months after a bilateral summit between Kabila and Zuma in 2010, Kabila awarded Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma two oilfield licenses in Lake Albert via a presidential decree. Though the extent to which Zuma personally benefitted from the arrangement is disputed, a City Press investigation has suggested that Zuma played a crucial role in bringing about the presidential decree. The licenses are linked to two firms in the British Virgin Islands, and are associated with the controversial Israeli Dan Gertler, as recently revealed in the Panama Papers, and a subsequent US investigation. Ironically, a presidential decree in 2008 initially awarded one of the oil licences to Divine Inspiration Group, a venture  linked to business partners of Thabo Mbeki. This confirms the view that the rot in the ANC goes beyond “Zuptazation”, and is rather rooted in a long-term dynamic of institutionalizing cronyism in the party. 

South Africa’s foreign policy towards the continent, or more specifically the DRC, was never benign, but always a mixture of sometimes contradicting economic, political, and moral commitments and interests. However, those hoping that the ANC would at least be partly inspired by its revolutionary legacy should be more disappointed than ever.

While South Africa’s recent policy towards the DRC shines a light on the political economy of cronyism in South Africa as a whole, the real victims of South Africa’s emerging moral bankruptcy are those brave women and men struggling for the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the DRC. The number of displaced people in the DRC is the highest of any country on the continent and at a record high of 3.7 million, while elections continue to be out of sight.

It is disheartening that South Africa legitimizes its foreign policy through the rhetoric of “sovereign political development” vis-à-vis “Western interventionism” when it was intra-African solidarity for democracy and majority representation that helped bring about the end of Apartheid.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.