Turning up the volume of quiet diplomacy: how to get the message to Kagame

The attempted assassination of a former Rwandan general in SA has, once again, placed the government in a precarious situation.

How far backwards should South Africa bend for the sake of African solidarity? This is one of the questions of continental foreign policy. It arose with Pretoria’s less-than-robust response to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s flouting of electoral standards last year and, more recently, to Uganda’s adoption of a drastic new anti-gay law, for example.

The question once again come to the fore last week over the ‘attempted assassination’ in Johannesburg of dissident Rwandan general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. The dilemma of how exactly to respond to Rwanda appears to have exposed fault lines in the South African government. Intruders entered what was supposed to be the South African government’s ‘safe house,’ where Nyamwasa was being protected after previous attempts on his life in 2010. But Nyamwasa and his family weren’t there – either by happy coincidence or because intelligence agencies had been tipped off about the impending attack. Security agencies investigated the incident and concluded that three diplomats based at the Rwandan high commission in Pretoria, and one based at the Burundi embassy, were involved – this according to officials who spoke anonymously.

And so the decision was made last Wednesday to expel the four diplomats. Rwanda retaliated by expelling six diplomats from the South African high commission, leaving only High Commissioner George Twala.

Expelling diplomats is a relatively strong response, but some officials want to go further

Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe, head of the security cluster of cabinet ministers dealing with the issue, only confirmed officially six days later that the diplomats had been expelled from South Africa because of  ‘illegal activities … attempted murders, including a murder of [Rwandan] nationals who are in South Africa.’

So Radebe also linked the expelled diplomats to the murder in Joburg earlier this year of Nyamwasa’s fellow dissident and also former colleague in the upper echelons of Rwanda’s security establishment, colonel Patrick Karegeya.

Expelling diplomats is in itself a relatively strong response. But some South African officials want to go further. They say that Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s ‘arrogant’ tit-for-tat expulsion of the six South African diplomats shows he did not get the message.

So, to stop him from attempting another assassination, South Africa should recall Twala. Rwanda would then no doubt respond by recalling High Commissioner Vincent Karega. And then perhaps South Africa would close its high commission and Rwanda would, no doubt, reciprocate.

Elsewhere in government, though, the thinking seems to be less aggressive and more familiar. Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma’s international relations adviser, stresses that a ‘political solution’ – that is, dialogue with Rwanda – should be pursued instead of recalling high commissioners and the like.

She says it is imperative that South Africa should remain friends with all African countries and with Rwanda, specifically, because of its strategic role in the Great Lakes region and because of the demands of regional integration. By the former she is referring to Rwanda’s key involvement in the chronically unstable eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), including of course – though she did not say so – its reputed backing of the M23 rebels. This directly affects South Africa because of the troops it deployed in the eastern DRC as part of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade, which late last year defeated the M23 rebel group.

SA has already tried the softly-softly approach – with a spectacular lack of success

By the importance of regional integration, she is mainly referring to the tripartite free trade agreement that the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC) have signed. The aim of the agreement is to join all of the 26 member nations – including South Africa and Rwanda – in one vast, free-trade area.

Those in government who advocate a more robust response to Rwanda retort that South Africa has already tried the softly-softly approach advocated by Zulu, with a spectacular lack of success. After the first two attempts on Nyamwasa in 2010, South Africa recalled its high commissioner and Rwanda reciprocated. After nearly a year, South Africa initiated a rapprochement, because it felt relations with Rwanda were too important to neglect.

Two new high commissioners were installed and relations seemed to have returned to normality until Karegeya was found strangled in a room at the Michelangelo Hotel on 1 January this year – and then the alleged third attempt on Nyamwasa’s life.

Zulu acknowledges that ‘we must not allow ourselves to be taken for granted,’ but insists the solution lies in talking out this problem with Kagame’s government. She says Zuma would decide on the next step once all the facts were before him, including the full report of the security agencies.

So, who’s right? Dr Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director of the Institute for Security Studies, observes that the South African government seems to be caught in a dilemma: it doesn’t want the spat to blow up completely, as it understands the importance of good relations with Rwanda. This is especially relevant given that Pretoria already has ‘difficult’ relations with two other key east African nations: Uganda over the anti-gay law, and Kenya over trade issues. Yet, Pretoria also feels it cannot tolerate endless assassination attempts on its soil.

The government’s delay in issuing a full public response may either be because it is struggling to decide how exactly to respond; or because ‘obfuscation is in itself a diplomatic tool’ in these circumstances, Cilliers explains. However, he forecasts that South Africa’s response will eventually be consistent with its wider approach – led by the presidency and the security agencies – of not rocking the boat in its relations with African nations.

He recalls that they pulled the plug on Zulu herself when she became too outspoken on Mugabe’s flouting of SADC’s directives just before the elections last year. And Cilliers tends towards Zulu’s view on the Rwanda spat, agreeing with her that Rwanda is too important a player in its region to be alienated. ‘And so a cautious approach is advised, at least for now, though later a message will have to be sent that this is unacceptable behaviour.’ The question remains: what will it eventually take for Kagame to get that message?

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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