Nigeria's former president His Excellency Olusegun Obasanjo, Namibian deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Honourable Ms Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah and SA Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu, ahead of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Solidarity Conference with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of Western Sahara. Photo: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS.
Pretoria - SADC ministers converged on the Department of International Relations in Pretoria on Monday for the first ever Solidarity Conference with the Saharawi people.

“This is an unprecedented occasion in that we have no recollection of any intergovernmental body ever hosting a conference of this nature,” Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told a packed conference hall.

In addition to ministers from the SADC states, the deputy prime minister from Algeria as well as ministers of foreign affairs from Venezuela and Nicaragua were also in attendance. 

The vice President of Cuba, and presidents of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are among some of the expected Heads of State and ministers. All the presidents of the front-line states are expected on Tuesday.

The conference was not short on revolutionary fervour as representatives from many of the region’s liberation movements were also in attendance, including Swapo, Zanu-PF, Frelimo, MPLA, ANC, and SACP.

Morocco pulled out all the stops to both sabotage and eclipse the SADC conference by holding a conference of its own on Western Sahara in Marrakech on the same two days as the SADC conference. 

Morocco issued invitations to African foreign ministers just 10 ago, and offered to pay the expenses of those African foreign ministers and officials who obliged, and also paid the travel and accommodation expenses of various journalists on the continent to cover their conference instead of the SADC conference in Pretoria.

Despite Morocco’s best efforts and claims that 40 African countries attended, many were lower level officials and it did not detract in any way from the potency of the official SADC conference. 

SADC countries not in attendance were eSwatini and Madagascar, which have benefited from Morocco’s cheque book diplomacy.

“It continues to horrify me that Morocco and its henchmen have no dignity in the way that they operate within the framework of being a member of the African Union. 

They knew full well that this SADC conference was taking place, yet on the eve of this conference they tried to overshadow it and failed. It shows weakness and is not the manner in which great nations operate,” Catherine Constantinides of Human Rights Defender told Independent Media.

Speaking at the opening of the Conference Sisulu said: “This conference is the realisation of a formally adopted resolution initiated by the SADC Council of Ministers in July 2017 in Tanzania, and binding on all of us. SADC hopes to come up with concrete steps in which we can strengthen and support the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. It is this kind of solidarity and support for the people of Western Sahara that must give courage and impetus to their struggle for self-determination.”

“It is incorrect to repeat regular references to our continent as 'post-colonial', when the people of Western Sahara are not free,”Sisulu said.

Namibia was the co-host of the solidarity conference, and the Namibian deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah addressed participants: “It is important that we host this conference in the land of Nelson Mandela. 

"Such solidarity sustained us in our liberation struggle, and we need to consolidate peace on African continent.”  

On the margins of the Conference the Human Rights Defender Catherine Constantanides said, “I have just returned from the Saharawi refugee camps and the humanitarian crisis is not sustainable. I know first hand what the suffering, torture and violation of human rights looks like for the people living in these conditions. This conference provides the opportunity to forge a new urgency to allow the people of Western Sahara to action their right to self-determination".