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What South Africa should get out of its engagements in the DRC

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What South Africa should get out of its engagements in the DRC

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President Jacob Zuma’s visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo on 16 October 2015 came at a critical time in the bilateral relations of the two countries, with South Africa having made significant investments in the DRC’s political process since the late 1990s.

Since President Zuma’s last visit to the DRC in October 2013, the security situation in the DRC has evolved markedly.

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Notwithstanding operational challenges on the ground, South Africa’s role through the Intervention Brigade within the framework of the United Nations Stabilisation Force has been constructive in securing the eastern DRC. With 95% of the territory seen as safe, the task of socio-economic development in the DRC has never been so urgent. Provided it focuses on the right mix of interventions, South Africa – having invested close to $1-billion in the country – is well positioned to articulate an optimistic scenario for the DRC.

There is no doubt that economic development is the last frontier in creating a capable state in the DRC – one affording sustainable opportunities for the majority of citizens. But current political brinkmanship can potentially undermine the legacy of President Thabo Mbeki, who laboriously sponsored the Sun City Agreement in 2002. Yet, this agreement crafted a sound basis for a future constitutional and multiparty democratic order in the DRC.

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With Angola having far more leverage with the leadership in Kinshasa, South Africa does not appear to be in the inside political track in the DRC. But of all the external actors in that country, South Africa seems to have far more to lose in view of the political and economic investments it has made since the second Congo war of 1998-2003. As it stands, 20% of the DRC’s imports are from South Africa, which provides it with a significant economic footprint outside its traditional Southern African sphere of influence. Therefore, the 9th session of the Binational Commission, which covers a wide range of areas, including governance, economic co-operation, peace and security, provided an excellent opportunity for South Africa to act in a manner that promotes the aspirations of ordinary citizens in the DRC. Under current conditions, these include a democratic, sustainable and inclusive political process as a precondition for economic development.

President Jacob Zuma’s visit had the hallmark of a well-intentioned commercial plan for the DRC. These have been in part manifested over the past few years through South African corporates who have invested in the country, particularly in the retail, mining and logistics sectors. Moreover, the signing of the Grand Inga Treaty in Kinshasa by Zuma and Kabila in October 2013 and its reiteration during the 9th session of the Binational Commission signalled a long-term South African commitment to the DRC, specifically to the rehabilitation of infrastructure. The sheer scale of Inga, estimated at $100-billion and still rising, suggests that South Africa should scale up its game in the country to include a grand political and economic strategy for the DRC. The 9th session of the Binational Commission provides such a window for South Africa to craft a strategy that is consistent with its own vision of a stable and prosperous DRC, but is also consistent with the expectations of the international community.

How can South Africa recalibrate its role to fit the scale of the challenges in the DRC? South Africa is part of the crucial mechanisms aimed at stabilising the DRC as a pivotal state in the region. These include its observer status in the Intergovernmental Conference on the Great Lakes Region; membership of the Tripartite Mechanism for Dialogue and Cooperation, which includes Angola and the DRC; and the Southern African Development Community. Moreover, South Africa has a privileged bilateral relationship with the DRC, which is underlined by 35 agreements and memoranda of understanding. South Africa is also part of UN-led and donor-co-ordinated mechanisms in the DRC.

Therefore, in terms of a voice, South Africa is present in every critical body framing the destiny of the DRC, the United Nations Security Council being the notable exception. On the basis of these obvious engagements, augmented by a high-profile economic role, South Africa is doing a fairly good job in the DRC.

Both the statement by South African minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane at the opening of the ministerial session of the Binational Commission and the final communiqué highlight progress made in the bilateral relationship. But President Kabila’s potential third term bid next year presents challenges for South Africa. South Africa should step up its engagement along five points.

First, South Africa needs a well-articulated political vision for the DRC, which includes seeking to dissuade Kabila from a third term, by reiterating the spirit of Article 220 of the 2006 constitution. In this vein, President Zuma should force President Kabila’s hand to make his intentions known in order to end the uncertainty and a potential deadly political stalemate looming on the horizon.

Second, South Africa’s ambiguity about a reduced mandate for MONUSCO or its complete departure ahead of presidential elections is not constructive. In the current tense political climate, the UN mission is essential to ensure credible democratic elections and the long-term consolidation of peace and security. In the eyes of the opposition and civil society, South Africa’s pandering to the Kabila government’s wish for the departure of MONUSCO is counterproductive and could undermine its image as a constructive actor.

Third, South Africa should seek to convince President Kabila, who hardly attends SADC regional summits, to return to this platform as a venue for problem-solving and broader engagement around the developmental challenges facing the DRC.  

Fourth, with increasing development co-operation tools and interventions, the South African government should enact domestic legislation (similar to the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) that will govern the conduct of its corporates in the DRC, and the rest of the continent. Allegations of malpractice by South African corporates undermine Pretoria’s credibility as a constructive development actor in the DRC.

Lastly, South Africa should focus on building capabilities that are consistent with a prominent political and economic role in the DRC. These could include upgrading the embassy by beefing up its staff complement, sending top-notch diplomats, as well as improving markedly their proficiency in French. In diplomacy, limited competencies and language barriers could restrict intense engagement and co-operation across various sectors, thereby compromising the effectiveness of the mission.

President Zuma ventured into the heart of one of Africa’s most troubled countries at a time when citizens of that country and the international community expect South Africa to avert a return to a dark age of conflict. Anything short of clarity about a contentious third term for Kabila, and solid commitments to a successful democratic transition and consolidation as preconditions for economic development would constitute a failed mission for Zuma.


Written by Dr Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari, senior fellow, SAIIA's Foreign Policy Programme.

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