Joseph Kabila’s special relationship with South Africa

On June 25 this year, president Joseph Kabila travelled to 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.

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By George Kibala Bauer