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A New Dawn for Eritrea-South Africa Relations?
23 November 2012

Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

Eritrea and South Africa formally established diplomatic relations in 1994. Eighteen years later, the two states seem to be strengthening their bilateral relations. In March 2012, Iqbal Jhazbhay, the new South African ambassador to Eritrea, presented his credentials to President Issayas Afeworki. Significantly, Ambassador Jhazbhay was warmly received by the president only a week after his arrival, which is a very unusual occurrence. This demonstrates the importance that Eritrea accords to South Africa.

Ambassador Jhazbhay is a member of the International Relations Sub-Committee of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa`s governing party, which decides on all major policy matters. He is also a member of the ANC`s International Relations Rapid Response Task Team, which was established after the 2007 Polokwane Conference and steers party-to-party relations, including those with the ruling parties of South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In May 2012 Eritrea introduced regular flights to South Africa, and, in July 2012 a South African business delegation visited Eritrea and was received at the highest level. This visit was meant to explore additional areas of trade and investment as Eritrea has large deposits of precious minerals such as gold and copper.

More significantly, in August 2012, Osman Salih Mohammed, Eritrea`s Minister of Foreign Affairs, paid an official visit to South Africa – his second since President Jacob Zuma took office in 2009. During this well-publicised visit, he met Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa`s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation. They signed a declaration of intent and promised to work towards developing mutual business interests. They also exchanged views on developments in the Horn of Africa, including the stability of Somalia and the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan. 

For Eritrea, building a strategic relationship with South Africa is a top foreign policy priority. Firstly, Eritrea is animated by the long-term economic objective of reviving its declining economy by developing its mining sector, in which South Africa mining companies are increasingly engaged. For instance, Senet, a South African mining infrastructure company, has effectively developed the infrastructure of Bisha, Eritrea`s principal mine. Moreover, South Africa is one of Eritrea`s major trading partners. According to South African sources, in 2010 exports from South Africa to Eritrea amounted to R202 million and consisted mainly of mining equipment.

Secondly, from an Eritrean perspective, building an alliance with South Africa has an added value. Indeed, following the loss of diplomatic and financial support from Egypt and Libya, Eritrea views South Africa as a useful African ally. South Africa is one of the wealthiest and most politically influential states in Africa and has the hard and soft power to take on prevalent continental issues. Moreover, South Africa is serving a second term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC had imposed sanctions on Eritrea in December 2009 over concerns that it supports insurgents seeking to destabilise Somalia. In December 2011 it tightened the sanctions in a resolution co-sponsored by Nigeria and Gabon. Eritrea wants South Africa to use its membership to back the lifting of the Eritrean sanctions, which were originally called for by the African Union (AU). According to sources in New York, South Africa was instrumental in watering down the 2011 UNSC resolution on the sanctions, even if it did not oppose it outright.

Thirdly, Eritrea is expending great diplomatic energy to re-engage with the international community, the AU and regional states. For instance, in August 2011 President Isaias made a three-day visit to Uganda (through which Eritrean Airlines transits to South Africa).

Fourthly, Eritrea has taken a calculated risk to counter the perceived influence of Ethiopia in the AU. In July 2012, it lent its support to South Africa`s Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who subsequently was elected the African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson.

Undeniably, Eritrean–South African relations have received renewed impetus as a result of this tightly contested AUC election. South Africa`s courting of Eritrea was partially informed by the short-term benefit of gaining Eritrea`s vote in the election. The election also unseated Dr Jean Ping, the incumbent from Gabon, which had spearheaded the vote for the sanctions against Eritrea. According to sources in Addis Ababa, South Africa was visibly exasperated by Ethiopia`s backing of Dr Ping. In fact, during the diplomatic campaign it mounted to get Dr Dlamini-Zuma elected, South Africa faced stiff challenges from Nigeria and Ethiopia. These two states did not approve of South Africa`s breaking the gentlemen`s agreement that the chairperson position should not be contested by the larger African states.

At the forefront of South Africa`s current foreign policy seems to be the conviction that there ought to be an AU chairperson who can chart a distinctly independent course in African affairs and become the only voice of the continent on issues of mutual concern. South Africa felt that the AU was marginalised in the conflicts in Côte d`Ivoire and Libya. Moreover, the AUC chairperson election betrayed South Africa`s growing ambition to use the AU to enhance its soft power. Indeed, South Africa wanted to gain more visibility as the continent`s leader and more influence in AU decision-making. Gone are the days when South Africa`s Thabo Mbeki systematically partnered with Nigeria`s Olusegun Obasanjo and Ethiopia`s Meles Zenawi to initiate the continental vision of the African Renaissance and launch the AU and the New Partnership for Africa`s Development (NEPAD).

Predictably, economic necessity, not altruism, motivated South Africa to befriend Eritrea. It wants to ensure that its companies get a sizeable share of Eritrea`s potentially lucrative mining concessions and agreements. Yet South Africa`s relations with Eritrea extend beyond AU power politics and economic motivations. Indeed, South Africa has started focusing on what is happening in the stormy and polarised Horn of Africa and on achieving lasting peace and stability there.

The ANC`s international relations policy discussion document explains that ‘the damage that the current stalemate [between Ethiopia and Eritrea] has caused to the region and to relations between these related peoples is huge`. It demonstrates that South Africa is prepared to diplomatically engage with the two states and help them negotiate an amenable agreement that could break the stalemate and ultimately lead to an all-inclusive regional security arrangement. South Africa may also intend to use its closer relations with Eritrea and frequent high-level interaction to influence its decisions and bring about a softening of its positions in the present and in future.   

However, it seems South Africa has not fully considered the deep-rooted factors underlying the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It also does not seem to have realised that a too-intimate embrace of Eritrea may raise Eritrean expectations unfairly. Its relations with Ethiopia, which remains the dominant political and military power in the Horn of Africa, could also become strained. Any leaning towards Eritrea, a near-pariah state in the region and continent, will inevitably upset the regional balance and further complicate the Ethiopian–Eritrean conflict.

For these reasons a note of caution should be sounded when considering South Africa`s relations with Eritrea. In fact, sooner or later it will become apparent to South Africa that its current policy and economic diplomacy are ill suited to the Hobbesian Horn of Africa. In this ancient and distant region, proud and unpredictable balance-of-power strategists like President Issayas inherently seek to dominate the geopolitical space at any cost. 
 

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