It’s astonishing how long it has taken South Africa to focus on the obvious fact that much – maybe most – rhino poaching is emanating from our neighbour, Mozambique.
Last week, Major-General Johan Jooste, who heads the joint military, police and game ranger operations to counter poachers in Kruger National Park, described the influx of poachers from Mozambique in dramatic, military terms as an “insurgency” requiring a “counter-insurgency” to stop it.
It seems several villages near the border have become dedicated to poaching as their livelihood. It has become a border industry.
Of the 36 suspected poachers caught in the park this year, 30 were Mozambicans. Eleven of the 36 were killed in gun battles with South African security agencies.
South Africa is sending the dead Mozambicans back home, evidently causing great resentment there and accusations that South Africa cares more about animals than people.
To many Mozambicans, evidently including the government, rhino poaching is a development issue, not a conservation issue. It is supporting many poor people.
The Mozambique government’s unhappiness became apparent last week when South African National Parks (SANParks) took journalists to the border to illustrate the problem. They were supposed to cross the border, but the Mozambican government wouldn’t allow them in.
Now SANParks is considering re-erecting the fence that was dismantled years ago along part of the international border with Mozambique in the Kruger National Park to create the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park which straddles the two countries.
Conservationists say any rhino that strays from the park into Mozambique is dead meat.
Refencing the border would, of course, kill the transfrontier park.
There has clearly been a great failure by Mozambique to play its part in sustaining the park or in curtailing poaching in Kruger.
That is self-destructive behaviour at the least, because, properly managed and developed, the Great Limpopo Park could have become – perhaps still could become – a major tourist drawcard for Mozambique.
Rhino poaching has already frayed relations between the two countries and is becoming an ever larger issue.
Yet there are no signs that Pretoria has taken it up at the highest level with Maputo, to persuade the government of Mozambique to tackle the problem and no doubt to help it do so – perhaps with some form of development assistance for the border villagers.
It seems to have been left to South African army officers and rangers to convey implicit diplomatic “messages” to Mozambique in the grisly form of dead poachers returned to their villages.
This rather recalls the way our relations with the Central African Republic (CAR) were left in the hands of the military. A foreign diplomat in Bangui recently remarked how strange it was that South Africa had had military trainers in the country since 2007 – but no embassy.
The lack of eyes and ears on the ground probably led to Pretoria misreading the political situation, leaving our soldiers high and dry without proper support when the Seleka rebels moved to topple president François Bozize three weeks ago.
The SANDF lost 13 soldiers trying to stop them.
Tony Leon, who has recently returned as ambassador to Argentina, has also remarked on this absence of an embassy in the CAR and suggested it meant our foreign policy was becoming militarised, as it was under PW Botha.
Perhaps. But it seems more likely that the Department of International Relations and Co-operation is simply not asserting its professional expertise and independence against a presidency that is pursuing its own agenda.
Our relations with Mozambique are guided by lofty ideals framed in such institutions as the Southern African Development Community.
But foreign policy is also about dealing promptly and decisively with the realities on the ground – like rhino poaching.