For years, South African diplomats have chafed at the overbearing power of the West in African affairs, and said the time had come for African solutions to African problems.
Now, as South Africa has been elected to a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council, South Africa has a chance to put its words into actions.
During South Africa's two-year term as a nonpermanent Council member, which begins Jan. 1, the Security Council is bound to tackle a series of thorny African conflicts – from Sudan to Zimbabwe and from Nigeria to Somalia – that demand attention.
But how will South Africa approach its leadership role on the troubled continent?
Instead of using its clout to rein in leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir – as the West has made clear it would appreciate – observers expect South Africa to act as a pragmatic broker that treads lightly with ruling despots.
“South Africa wants to engage with the world in a different way. In partnership with others, it can change things in a meaningful way,” says Adam Habib, a seasoned political analyst and vice chancellor of University of Johannesburg. “But it must have the political will to take on its allies, and it must change the terms of engagement.”
Concerns over brewing African conflicts
Many of the more vexing problems that the UN Security Council will face over the next two years will be in Africa.
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission is winding down at the request of the Congolese government – even as there are growing signs that armed militias and even the Congolese army continue to fight each other, and to abuse civilians in their areas of control.
- In Somalia, an African Union led peacekeeping force – made up primarily of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers – props a weak and divided transitional government, even as that government continues to fight among itself. Somalia’s inability to govern itself has also led to a massive piracy problem, with pirate crews capturing and holding more than two dozen ships and 330 crewmembers for ransom. Thus far, South Africa has refused to send peacekeepers to assist the AU mission, but it is still thinking of sending naval forces to patrol against piracy.
- In Sudan, a 20-year-long civil war was ended in 2005 with a peace agreement between north and south, but a referendum that could give the south the right to secede could put these two former rivals back on a path to war. Sudan’s Darfur region continues to boil, where another massive joint peacekeeping mission by the African Union and UN struggles to maintain peace in a conflict where 300,000 have been killed thus far. Here, former South African president Thabo Mbeki is playing a key mediating role.
- In Zimbabwe, a marred election in March 2008 led finally – after significant South African mediation – to a coalition government between President Robert Mugabe and his chief rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The relationship seems yet again ready to fall apart, with Tsvangirai this week telling a number of nations (including South Africa) to reject ambassadors appointed unilaterally by President Mugabe. South Africa has promised to “engage” the two sides to put the government back on track.
South Africa wants equal footing
In past years, when Western colonial powers and cold war rivals took a much more controlling approach to Africa, continental conflicts were treated as a matter of mere muscle. African despots were either tolerated, or treated like misbehaving children, but rarely treated as equal partners.
Recent efforts to enforce international laws on human rights – such as arresting former Liberian President Charles Taylor and charging Mr. Bashir war crimes and genocide – are often seen by African leaders in this same paternalistic light. After all, Mr. Habib notes, the United States itself has exempted itself and its commanders from the same war-crimes laws that African leaders must abide by.
To persuade strongman leaders like Bashir or Mr. Mugabe, South Africa has tended to be more accommodating, but Habib says that doesn’t have to mean South Africa would get nothing in return.
In Sudan, for instance, where South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki has been assigned a leading mediation role by the African Union, South Africa can devote significant diplomatic energy to ensure that the referendum passes off peacefully, and to ensure that Bashir and his generals see it in their personal interest and in the national interest to accept the results.
South Africa's pragmatic path
It’s all very well to urge the international community to arrest Bashir for war crimes, but when the Sudanese leader still has the power to rule a country, and to send his troops into war, Habib argues that the better path is pragmatism.
In Sudan, and also in Zimbabwe, this means that South Africa would cut a deal with Bashir or Mugabe, to moderate their behavior in exchange for peace.
“Whether we like it or not, Mugabe is a thug, but he is a thug with guns, so then you must engage him,” says Habib. “So how do you force him to come honestly to the table?”
The key, he says, is to give Mugabe assurances that giving away power will not necessarily mean a ticket to a war crimes trial in The Hague. “ 'As a trade, you and your generals don’t have to go to the ICC, but in exchange, you have to guarantee peace,' " Habib says South Africa will say to African despots. "And that debate has to be put on the agenda of the Security Council, by South Africa.”