South Africa takes tentative steps towards Rabat
The South Africa-Morocco relationship may be entering a new era of pragmatism.
They are about 5,000 kilometres apart, one located on the Southern tip the other on the Northern tip of Africa.
Both are major regional economic powers.
Yet their relationship is one of the most contested on the continent.
- Morocco and South Africa have never had a permanent ambassador in each other’s country and diplomatic relations are at arm’s length.
A key reason for this: Western Sahara
South Africa’s position has always been clear: unless Morocco ends what it sees as the illegal occupation of Western Sahara, there can be no dialogue. In March both countries held rival gatherings to discuss the issue.
At a conference organised by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), then international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu told diplomats:
- “The year 2019 marks 28 years since the signing of the Western Sahara ceasefire agreement, yet the Sahrawi people have, year-in-year-out since then, been denied the opportunity of holding a referendum to decide their future.”
Morocco’s own conference was designed to emphasise the African Union (AU)’s 2018 decision that the conflict over Western Sahara should be handled by the United Nations (UN). The latter held two round tables, also in March, with representatives of the Morocco, Frente Polissario, Algeria and Mauritania, but not South Africa.
In April South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Jerry Matjila, chastised the UN Security Council for adopting a resolution to extend its MINURSO mission in Western Sahara, saying the text was “not balanced”.
The ANC has always defended the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic‘s right to exist and believes that until it is decolonised no African can be “truly free”.
In 1975 Spain relinquished control of the territory.
- Morocco and Mauritania stepped in and claimed it as their own.
- Since then, its legal status has remained unresolved. Algeria and South Africa have been the strongest backers of Western Sahara.
Now the Institute for Global Dialogue’s Sanusha Naidu tells The Africa Report that it is time for South Africa to have “constructive dialogue with Morocco”.
- “Yes, it is politically incorrect to talk about it, but this is the reality of the continent and you have to open up,” Naidu says. “Morocco is the new gateway, it has incredible traction in the region and in West Africa – economically there are special economic zones, ports and infrastructure.”
- “If you are going to continue with the Western Sahara issue, allies like Algeria are imploding, Sudan is imploding, and South Africa needs to be more effective about its partnerships,” adds Naidu.
South Africa is most likely eyeing up the missed opportunities its BRICS partner China is cultivating in the Moroccan powerhouse.
Alvin Botes, in his first interview as deputy minister of international relations, did not want to give a direct as to whether the government would be open to “constructive dialogue” with Morocco.
Instead, he told The Africa Report:
- “Our entry point in South Africa is that we subscribe to the international protocols that every country – as defined by the AU and the UN – must respect territorial areas.”
- “We want to engage with the leadership of Morocco around the broad social compact of what is in the interest of […] all African states and guided by the African Union.”
Speaking on the sidelines of the opening of Parliament, the new minister of international relations, Naledi Pandor, did not want to comment directly on the Western Sahara issue, but said South Africa’s position remains that it will not allow any dominant power or country to dictate terms:
- ‘”We have always argued for fairer global institutional arrangements. I think we have consistently said that the world must engage with each other on the basis that there cannot be a dominant power that seeks to bully any country and [we must] respect all countries that they have sovereignty.”
In her first interview with Daily Maverick, on 21 June, Pandor said she was not yet fully up to date on South Africa’s position on Western Sahara and the resolutions of the SADC conference.
- But she did confirm that, after 15 years’ absence, a Moroccan ambassador would be arriving in Pretoria, as announced in March.
Bottom line: A new pragmatism may well inject a lively dynamic into the Morocco-South Africa relationship, but will raise the hackles of human rights groups and those ANC members loyal to the policy of defending Western Sahara.