01 Sep 2013

How much peace is SA really keeping?

Written by  Mark Paterson

No. 271: How much peace is SA really keeping? / Mark Paterson / Sunday Times
1 September 2013

Pretoria's presence in central Africa seems to be driven by self-interest, says Mark Paterson

South Africa has not shied away from international action to keep peace on the continent, despite the military setback in the Central African Republic (CAR), where 15 of its troops were killed in March in clashes with rebels.

Last month, the government sent 1 345 troops to reinforce a United Nations-approved intervention brigade in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after Pretoria had lobbied for the force in December as a member of the security troika of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The 3 000-strong neutral force provided by South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, which was instigated after Congolese rebels overran the city of Goma in November, represents the first time the UN has authorised the incorporation of an offensive unit within a peacekeeping force.

In the past week, South African soldiers in the force attacked rebel positions in the Congo.

This is a dangerous mission that could embroil Pretoria in the treacherous Congolese war and result in further fatalities. South Africa's interventions in the DRC and the CAR have raised questions about the consistency and effectiveness of its approach to peacekeeping on the continent — and in particular the extent to which its interventions may be serving a foreign policy shaped as much by narrow national interests as by a principled concern for the greater good. The tension between the two poles has become increasingly evident since 1994.

South Africa's liberation from apartheid rule afforded a unique opportunity to leverage its new status as a moral beacon on the international stage. Drawing on its heritage, the ANC proposed an ethics-based foreign policy that would promote the peaceful resolution of disputes, human rights and African self-determination. Thabo Mbeki's leading role at the birth of the African Union in 2002 signalled a resurgent pan-Africanism on the continent, as well as Pretoria's preference for pursuing its own interests through multilateral mechanisms. In a reversal of the militarist, destabillsing role towards its neighbours adopted by the apartheid regime, South Africa has preferred to act on the continent under the authority of SADC, the AU and the UN.

Pretoria's close engagement with the continent through these bodies has remained a key plank of its foreign policy under President Jacob Zuma, as well as source of national pride. However, the country's apparently growing continental diplomatic ambitions have also stoked fears on the continent that it is seeking to dominate. South Africa has Africa's largest economy and its white-led corporate sector has fanned out across Africa. Fears have mounted that parochial concerns — particularly in the economic sphere — rather than any vision of a united Africa have increasingly shaped its foreign policy.

Given the intergovernmental rather than supranational nature of SADC, the dynamics between Southern Africa's leading states have largely shaped the nature of the bloc's peacemaking interventions. Furthermore, the body lacks autonomous operational capacity and relies primarily on the political will, resources and actions of member states like South Africa to implement its objectives.

In this regard, Pretoria has much to offer the subregion in terms of its greater technical, military and financial resources. Successive South African leaders have led mediation efforts in the SADC subregion, including in the DRC, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, and Pretoria contributed 3 000 troops to previous UN and AU peacekeeping missions launched in the Congo and Burundi.

South Africa has won substantial diplomatic influence through its recognition that the adoption of a legitimate leadership role in SADC and the AU depends on its capacity to facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation, rather than an assumption of its dominance. Its diplomatic and peacekeeping engagements in Africa have been further bolstered by a series of key bilateral relationships with anchor states across the continent.

In Central Africa,South Africa's relationship with Kinshasa been crucial. Pretoria promotes the view that only a regional approach can resolve the conflicts in the Great Lakes region, and its present engagement in the eastern Congo is part of continued efforts to bring some stability to the DRC, a fellow SADC member, after a decade-long war.

However, these efforts, including even the 2002 Congolese accord overseen by Mbeki, have been criticised for failing to address the circumstances of the conflict, including the weak authority of the Congolese state, and the interests of diverse domestic, regional and external actors. The 2002 deal was criticised as representing more a route to power and greater control over resources for its signatories than a comprehensive plan fulfilling the country's democratic aspirations.

In addition, South African companies have been accused of using dubious means to pursue business interests in the DRC. Blue-chip companies De Beers, Anglo American, Anglovaal mining and Iscor were all cited in a 2002 UN report on the looting of Congolese mineral resources. Some have questioned Pretoria's motives in playing such an active mediation role in the country.

Apprehension has also risen in Southern Africa about dependence on South Africa's military capacity. Although Pretoria has sought to stress the centrality of Africa to its foreign policy, its draft South African Defence Review 2012 foresaw a "new scramble for Africa" and stressed the role of technological might in the "African battle space".

But rather than emphasising the threat of rapacious foreign powers, Pretoria would perhaps do better by focusing on peacebuilding, because half of conflict countries since the end of the Cold War have relapsed into war.

South Africa's peacemaking and peacekeeping engagements raise important questions over the potential effectiveness of not only the present SADC-sponsored intervention in the DRC, but also the bloc's leadership of such processes. Southern African governments have been reluctant to cede any significant power to the Botswana-based SADC secretariat. In an effort to consolidate its peace and security agenda, the bloc revised the strategic indicative plan for its security organ in 2012.

The new blueprint promotes the development of common foreign policy approaches on issues of mutual concern and shifts the body's focus from defending Southern Africa from military aggression to contributing to peace and security, with the operational-making of the SADC brigade.

However, a key constraint on the consolidation of security in Southern Africa has remained the failure to promote peace and the redressing of economic inequalities.

SADC, even harnessing South Africa's substantial political and economic strength, lacks the resources to undertake comprehensive peacebuilding on its own and will have to devise local strategies with international actors such as the UN and the European Union to tackle the root causes of conflicts so that countries such as the DRC do not slide back into conflict.

Paterson is a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town

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