South Africa’s relationship with France takes some effort to comprehend, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - To say that South Africa has a complex relationship with France would be an understatement. Perhaps nothing else quite exemplifies the complexities and contradictions of South Africa’s foreign policy than this relationship.
On the one hand one continually hears dark mutterings, from all levels and corners of the South African government, about the alleged underhand meddling of France in Africa.
On the other hand, Pretoria gives considerable importance and attention to the relationship, as does France. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy made a state visit here in 2008, President Jacob Zuma made a state visit to France two years ago and President Francois Hollande will make a state visit to South Africa next week.
For France, South Africa represents, in broad, strategic terms, the new kind of African partnership that Paris is seeking – or at least purporting to seek – to demonstrate its break with the old “France-Afrique” policy of meddling in Africa.
That was very much the theme of Sarkozy’s 2008 visit when he chose South Africa as a symbolic location – being Anglophone, democratic, well-governed and free-market-orientated – to show that this was the sort of African partner France would henceforth prefer – rather than the Francophone leaders it had propped up in the past, regardless of their behaviour.
Zuma reciprocated Sarkozy’s visit in March 2011, just before the French-South African relationship hit a serious bump in the road.
The Libyan crisis was rapidly unfolding and Sarkozy was to lead the charge for a major Nato-led military intervention.
South Africa voted for the UN Security Council resolution that authorised that intervention – not least because Sarkozy had persuaded Zuma in Paris of its merits.
Then Zuma loudly withdrew his support, claiming Sarkozy and other Western leaders leading the attack on Libya had abused UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by helping Muammar Gaddafi’s rebel enemies remove him from power, rather than just protecting civilians.
Relations got even worse when South Africa began campaigning aggressively, late in 2011, for then Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to oust Gabon’s Jean Ping as chairman of the AU Commission.
The essential plank of South Africa’s election platform for her was that Ping was a French stooge, doing Paris’s bidding. Dlamini Zuma failed to topple Ping at her first attempt in January last year. Then Socialist Party leader Hollande was elected president in May that year and South Africa welcomed an ideological soulmate.
Whether that had a bearing on the AU Commission elections is not known. But Dlamini Zuma finally beat Ping a few weeks later. Hollande also proclaimed that his government would break with the old France-Afrique policy. But he felt compelled to intervene not long after, in Mali.
The AU had to accept this intervention since it had failed to intervene itself.
As a measure of the delicate predicament over France that Zuma then found himself in, he said he accepted France’s intervention – but only because Hollande had called him first to get his approval!
And what could illustrate the complexities and contradictions of South Africa’s relationship with France better than Central African Republic (CAR)?
Precisely to illustrate his break with the past, Hollande publicly declined a desperate request for military assistance from the unworthy CAR President Francois Bozize when he was threatened by Seleka rebels.
Instead Bozize turned to South Africa and so it was SANDF troops who took on Seleka in March this year, in vain, as they marched on Bangui.
Now that Bozize is gone and the country has fallen into bloody chaos, a lot of people – probably South Africa secretly included – would love France to go in and restore order.
Zuma has offered South Africa’s services again for that purpose. And Prime Minister Laurent Fabius is visiting Bangui en route to South Africa.
Will French and South African forces together rescue CAR? That would somehow close the circle of this relationship.
* Peter Fabricius is the foreign editor of Independent Newspapers.