SA pushes ahead with plans to normalise relations with Rwanda despite Rwanda taking no steps to sanction its Deputy Foreign Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe for insulting Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

South Africa is pushing ahead with plans to normalise relations with Rwanda despite the fact that Rwanda has taken no steps to sanction its Deputy Foreign Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe for his tweet insulting SA Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu. 

There has also been no sanction of the Rwandan pro-government website allegedly run by the country’s military intelligence, which posted an article this week with a headline that contained unacceptable insults against Sisulu following her meeting with a former Rwandan General. The article remained up on the site for six hours before being taken down. Such insults levied against Rwanda's First Lady would be considered equally unacceptable.

“If prominent people in Rwanda can insult a foreign minister in South Africa, who else can they insult?” Sisulu said in reaction to Rwanda’s shocking personal attack on her. “If I was a man, they would not insult me like that.”  

Minister Sisulu’s spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya has shot back saying: “Rwanda’s Deputy Minister is a male and tends to shoot from the hip. What is unacceptable is that he shoots from the hip about the foreign minister of South Africa who is a woman, and no-one stopped him.”

“Given we are in the process of normalising relations with Rwanda, one would have expected Rwanda’s foreign minister to have complained to President Kagame about the deputy minister’s behaviour on Sisulu’s behalf,” Mabaya told Independent Media.

In the wake of this week's fallout, other tweets have emerged on Twitter accounts supportive of the Rwandan government accusing Sisulu of not being objective on Rwanda given that she was married to the late Professor Rok Ajulu who had written papers challenging Rwanda's model of democracy.

Sisulu's spokesperson has quoted her in response to these attacks, "I have been a minister for more than 20 years, and have never expressed myself on Rwanda, I have actually been a defender of Rwanda in cabinet." According to Mabaya, when Sisulu became Minister for International Relations earlier this year, she had asked her Director General Kgabo Mahoai, "When are we normalising relations with Rwanda?"

What gave rise to the sudden Rwandan vitriol against Sisulu was the fact that she had met with Rwandan dissidents based in South Africa in order to hear their views. Responding to a question at a press briefing on November 12 about progress made in normalising South Africa's relations with Rwanda, Sisulu had said that she had met with Nyamwasa in Johannesburg and was "pleasantly surprised" to hear that Nyamwasa, who had established an opposition party in South Africa, was willing to negotiate a reconciliation deal with the Rwandan authorities. 

The remark unleashed unprecedented attacks on Sisulu in Rwanda. Rwanda's Deputy Foreign Minister Nduhungirehe had criticised the meeting on his Twitter account saying "If any SA official wishes to negotiate with a convicted criminal in SA who is leading a subversive movement operating in our region, they are free to do so, but should never think of involving Rwanda into this negotiation." 

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has become increasingly hostile towards critics of his government, cracking down on political opponents and journalists, many of whom have been arrested, disappeared and handed down draconian jail sentences. This week Kagame warned at a Rwandan Defence Forces Drill that "Enemies of Rwanda will be dealt with decisively." Kagame was specifically referring to Rwandan dissidents based in Burundi, which includes the Rwandan National Congress, which is linked to Nyamwasa. 

Rwandan agents believed to have been operating from the Rwandan embassy in South Africa had attempted to assassinate Nyamwasa in his Johannesburg home in 2014, which led to South Africa expelling three Rwandan diplomats, and in retaliation Rwanda expelled six South African diplomats from Kigali. Since then Nyamwasa has survived a further two assassination attempts. 

Nyamwasa, who had been part of the inner circle of the RPF since the time of the genocide, has been targeted by Kagame since his accusation that it was Kagame and not Hutu extremists who ordered the rocket attack on the plane carrying Rwanda's former President Juvenal Habyarimana on 6 April 1994, that triggered the genocide. This is an accusation that Kagame has vehemently denied. In the aftermath of the genocide, Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Army was accused of carrying out mass killings of Hutu civilians.

The 2014 attempted assassination of Nyamwasa came on the heels of the assassination allegedly by Rwandan agents in 2013 of Patrick Karegeya, the former Rwandan Intelligence Head who was assassinated in a Sandton hotel.

Karegeya was once one of the most powerful figures in Rwanda, and had fled to South Africa in 2008 after falling out with Kagame. He had helped establish the opposition movement the Rwandan National Congress. Prior to his assassination, Karegeya had held a series of meetings with South African and Tanzanian intelligence officials at a time when both countries were sending troops to the DRC as part of a UN force to neutralise the M23 rebel group, largely considered a Rwanda proxy rebel force. 

 In the context of very limited free speech or open political space, Kagame won a third term in August last year with a reported 98.8 percent of the vote, after a 2015 referendum allowed him to run for a seven-year term and two additional five-year terms thereafter. 

According to Human Rights Watch, before and after the election the Rwandan government continued to limit the ability of civil society groups, the media, international human rights organisations and political opponents to function freely and independently, or to criticise the government's policies and practices. Rwandan authorities continue to arrest and detain people in unofficial military detention centers, where scores of detainees have been tortured in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch reports.