Dust-up between South Africa and Rwanda. Will it escalate?

In a week where Pretoria and Kigali have expelled nine diplomats between them, there is suspicion that Pretoria might expel Rwanda's ambassador.

This post appeared on the Africa in Transition site. The views expressed are the author's own. 

South Africa earlier this week expelled three Rwandan officials from its embassy in Pretoria. They are charged with complicity in an assassination attempt against a Rwandan dissident living in South Africa. In response, Kigali expelled six South African diplomats. 

Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo further accused South Africa of providing a safe haven for Rwandan terrorists. There is suspicion in South Africa that Rwanda has been complicit in other assassinations or attempts against Rwandan dissidents, but apparently there was not enough evidence previously to move against the Rwanda embassy. Now there is.

The bilateral relationship between Kigali and Pretoria is complicated. Kigali has close political and economic ties with Uganda and Kenya; all three are part of the East African Community.

If forced to choose between Kigali and Pretoria, Nairobi and Kampala are likely to choose the former. Nairobi is already cool toward Pretoria: the Zuma administration is a staunch defender of the International Criminal Court, where Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta was arraigned and Deputy President William Ruto is currently on trial for crimes against humanity. 

South Africa also provides peacekeepers to the UN forces in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are widespread accusations of Ugandan and Rwandan support for the anti-Kinshasa rebel militias.

Official Rwanda complicity in the attempted murder of an asylum seeker in Johannesburg is, of course, an outrageous violation of South African sovereignty. There is speculation that Pretoria may expel the Rwandan ambassador. If so, that will almost certainly be followed by Kigali’s expulsion of the South African ambassador. Official communication between the two countries would then be put on ice.

Simon Allison, writing in the Daily Maverick, points out that Pretoria here has the high ground. The danger, as he also points out, is that treating Paul Kagame as an “outlaw” and Rwanda as a “pariah state” could become a “self- fulfilling prophecy.”

On the other hand, plenty of observers in the eastern Congo would argue that they already are.

How, then, is South Africa, a liberal, democratic state governed by the rule of law but with African interests and aspirations to respond?

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