Rwanda-South Africa row: sign that SA has wasted its leadership potential

Last week South Africa and Rwanda traded diplomatic expulsions. It is not the first time that relations between the two countries have gone this sour. 
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

Last week South Africa and Rwanda traded diplomatic expulsions. It is not the first time that relations between the two countries have gone this sour. 

Four years ago, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Rwanda for consultations following the shooting of Kayumba Nyamwasa, a Rwandan fugitive in Johannesburg.

Recalling an ambassador for consultations is a diplomatic way of showing anger and displeasure while expulsion of each other’s diplomats is just short of severing relations.

I think the state of relations between Rwanda and South Africa goes beyond the two countries and is a reflection of the latter’s failure to play its expected role in Africa.

South Africa has the ability to be a continental leader in many respects.  It has the continent’s biggest economy and a strong military to back its leadership potential.

And for a little over ten years after 1994, the leaders of South Africa lived up to this ability.

President Nelson Mandela lent his considerable moral authority and personal stature to his country. Everyone in Africa and beyond found him inspiring and considered him a role model. This was a period of hope and expectation – waiting for the promise of the country that would be released by the new-found freedom.

Mandela was not just the president of South Africa, but a world leader. His word carried weight and he was not shy to immerse himself into other countries’ problems if that could help resolve them. 

People in the Great Lakes Region remember his role in mediating and ending conflicts. Under him,South Africa enjoyed the respect of Africa and the rest of the international community.

President Thabo Mbeki carried on in similar fashion. 

Now, Thabo Mbeki was not a Mandela and in his time was accused of all kinds of things – aloofness, disregard of, even disdain for, daily politics and sometimes being out of touch with reality. 

In a sense he was not cut out for the rough and tumble of politics (which his successor, Jacob Zuma thoroughly enjoys).

But what he lacked in charisma he more than made up for in intellect and commitment to Africa. Under his leadership South Africa looked outwards and was actively engaged with the rest of Africa. 

Thabo Mbeki was deeply involved with such initiatives as African Renaissance and NEPAD. He was one of the champions for seeking African solution to African problems. 

The engagement with Africa by both Mandela and Mbeki had another dimension. It reflected a sense of gratitude to the rest of the continent for their role in the liberation of South Africa.

In the recent past, however, South Africa seems to have abdicated its leadership role. The shift away from playing a more positive role in Africa is perhaps a reflection on the country’s leadership and the state of affairs internally.

Sharp divisions have developed among South Africans in the political and economic spheres. The ruling African National Congress that was once a mass movement has been splintering owing to corruption and dissatisfaction with the performance of the party in raising people’s living standards.

Ordinary people are increasingly disgruntled with the political class and post-apartheid African business elite. Indeed in a number of cases, especially at mines, there have been protests that have been met by apartheid era police brutality.

There has also been growing xenophobia against African immigrants in the townships. Some have seen this growing intolerance to fellow Africans as a sign of deep economic issues within South Africa.

Others see it as a sign of ingratitude.

Of course, South Africa has continued to deal with the rest of Africa, but in a largely negative sense, to the extent that some see it as meddling rather than providing leadership.

For instance, in the case of Rwanda, South Africa has provided a home to people they know plan and sponsor terrorist activities in another African country. 

The Rwanda Government has said that it has been providing its South African counterpart with proof of those terrorist plans and activities and the people involved. 

It appears that South African authorities have chosen to ignore the evidence and instead has gone ahead to provide the terrorists with extra security at the taxpayers’ expense.

In dealing with other African countries, South Africa’s leaders seem not to be driven by national motives alone but by other interests. Personal friendship and other individual relationships appear to dictate national policy.

That is why in the last several years the potential for South African leadership of the continent has not been realised. The leadership capital that Mandela and Mbeki built, and that a strong economy guarantees has been squandered. 

The result is that we are increasingly witnessing unprincipled diplomatic quarrels that do not serve the interests of ordinary South Africans.


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