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South Africa Bully Phobia Yields No Stance on Ivory Coast

Alassane Ouattara
While the United Nations, African Union and U.S. recognize Alassane Ouattara, seen here, as the winner of the Nov. 28 election, South Africa said the result was inconclusive and stepped back from condemning incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo. Photographer: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

As Ivory Coast teeters on the brink of civil war, South Africa is defying international opinion by refusing to take sides in a dispute over the outcome of a democratic vote.

While the United Nations, African Union and U.S. recognize Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 election, South Africa said the result was “inconclusive” and stepped back from condemning incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who is spurning calls for him to cede power.

Since emerging from apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress-led government has held off using its reputation as a champion of African rights and its weight as sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest economy to become a champion of democracy. It has also stepped back from condemning leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who stand accused of human rights abuses.

“South Africa has lost some of the moral high ground it acquired in 1994 with its peaceful transition,” Tom Wheeler, a South African diplomat from 1961-2003 who now works as an analyst at the independent South African Institute for International Affairs, said in an interview from Johannesburg. “It’s not helping democracy.”

The ANC mobilized international support for sanctions that hastened the demise of apartheid. The negotiated settlement which saw the National Party that created apartheid join the government is a model that South Africa has backed following contested elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Not So Simple

South African President Jacob Zuma is one of five African heads of state appointed on Jan. 29 by the African Union to mediate in Ivory Coast. While the 53-nation grouping demanded that Gbagbo relinquish power, South Africa remained on the sidelines.

“We hold no brief for any faction in Ivory Coast,” International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Cape Town on Feb. 17. “I wish diplomacy was as simple” as choosing the winner of an election.

At least 365 people have been killed in the world’s top cocoa-producing nation since the elections, according to the UN. The past few days have been marked by violent clashes between forces backing the rival leaders.

Members of the African Union’s mediation panel met to discuss the Ivory Coast crisis in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, today and are due to conclude their talks tomorrow.

No Bully

South Africa doesn’t “want to be seen as a bully on the continent,” said Miles Tendi, an analyst at Control Risks, a London-based firm that advises companies on security and political dangers. “Western states are prone to shouting from rooftops, or threatening intervention. South Africa, on the other hand, believes the resolution of crises or conflicts is more likely to be achieved through non-coercive diplomacy.”

South Africa says Mugabe’s 2009 agreement to form a unity government with the former opposition is a victory for its so-called quiet diplomacy, ending a decade of political and economic crisis. Others point to the continued presence of Mugabe. The quiet diplomacy term was used by former President Thabo Mbeki’s government to refer to their efforts in Zimbabwe.

“What we always need to bear in mind is Zimbabwean nationals are their own liberators,” South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe told lawmakers on March 3. “The role we have to play in South Africa is a supporting role, to nudge them, to encourage them to move in the direction of a full democracy.”

Early Efforts

South Africa, which accounts for more than 70 percent of southern Africa’s gross domestic product, is home to companies such as Standard Bank Group Ltd., MTN Group Ltd. and Shoprite Holdings Ltd., which have expanded throughout the continent. About 14 percent of South Africa’s exports go to other African countries, while the continent supplies 6.8 percent of its imports, government data shows.

“There is always a trade-off between commercial interests and injunctions driven by human rights or social morality,” Iraj Abedian, chief executive officer of Pan-African Investment and Research Services, a Johannesburg-based advisory service, said in a March 8 telephone interview. “South Africa has not been able to speak out as clearly” as it would like to.

Moreover, the ANC government’s early efforts to impose its views on other African countries flopped.

In 1995, then-President Nelson Mandela unsuccessfully tried to persuade Nigeria’s government not to hang writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Mandela then failed to win backing from most other African leaders to have the West African nation suspended from the Commonwealth, an association of the U.K. and its former colonies.


In 1998, South Africa sent more than 600 troops into neighboring Lesotho to quell a mutiny by junior army officers. More than 60 people were killed, and the government’s handling of the crisis was widely criticized.

South African diplomats have subsequently helped negotiate ends to civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burundi.

Zuma’s administration has backed pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and called for an end to violence in Libya. “South Africa has openly condemned the loss of life and attacks on civilians and reported violations of human rights in Libya,’ the Presidency said in an e-mailed statement today.

Back in the Ivory Coast, the government’s position may be a pragmatic one, given that Gbagbo is unlikely to cede power willingly and has strong military backing, said Keith Gotschalk, a politics lecturer as the University of the Western Cape.

“Their top concern is conflict management or conflict avoidance,” he said in a March 7 interview from Cape Town. “Democracy isn’t seen as important as the absence of civil war.”

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