A women’s division of the Polisario Front army march in the El Ayoun refugee camp in Algeria. File picture: Denis Doyle/AP
A women’s division of the Polisario Front army march in the El Ayoun refugee camp in Algeria. File picture: Denis Doyle/AP

South Africa in diplomatic spat with Morocco over Western Sahara

By Brenda Masilela Time of article published Apr 15, 2020

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Johannesburg - South Africa has found itself in a diplomatic storm in which it is accused of acting out of step with the rest of the UN Security Council in efforts to resolve the long-standing Western Sahara territorial dispute with Morocco.

The diplomatic spat spilt over into the public after the Moroccan Press Agency reported that on Thursday last week South Africa was isolated by 14 other UN Security Council members because of its position on the former Spanish colony.

Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1975.

Since the disputed sparsely populated territory has been the subject of a long-running dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people, led by the Polisario Front.

An UN-brokered truce in 1991 ended the 16-year insurgency, but the diplomatic dispute continues.

Quoting "diplomatic sources" Moroccan Press Agency reports that: "The South African delegation deplored a so-called deadlock in the political process, where the other members of the Security Council welcomed the new impetus brought by the holding of two Round Tables in December 2018 and in March 2019 in Geneva bringing together Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the 'Polisario', and the will of the participants to meet again in the same format".

On Monday South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) dismissed the report saying instead it was acting in concert with the position of the African Union (AU).

 "The Moroccan Press Agency has put out a misleading report on South Africa’s and indeed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) recent debate on the occupied territory in the Western Sahara," Dirco said in response on Monday.

"South Africa’s approach on Western Sahara is guided by the position of the African Union, which has consistently supported the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, in line with the relevant AU decisions and UN Security Council resolutions."

The Moroccan Press Agency also reported that South Africa unfairly tried to use the Covid-19 pandemic to impose its minority view on resolving the dispute. Globally, nearly 2 million people are known to have been infected by the fast-spreading virus.

 "Short of ideas, South Africa tried to instrumentalize the Covid-19 pandemic in its tirade against Morocco, alleging 'responsibilities' arising from a Kingdom's status in relation to the Moroccan Sahara that belongs only to the imaginary of South African diplomacy," reported the Moroccan Press Agency.

"Likewise, South Africa called for extending the Secretary-General's call for a global ceasefire to the Moroccan Sahara, a region where no shots have been fired since 1991."

However, Dirco said any attempt to portray South Africa’s principled positions on these matters as being out of step with the majority of nations in the world were incorrect.

"South Africa’s stance resonates with most countries who have experienced colonialism and occupation," said Dirco.

 "South Africa particularly regrets that the Security Council has not been able to move the peace process forward."

Dirco said this was unfortunate as the people of Western Sahara continue to "endure the occupation and their struggle for their right to self-determination is prolonged".

"In the context of the global crisis brought about by the novel COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa supports the call for a global ceasefire by António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General," Dirco added.

"Consequently, we, therefore, urge both the Kingdom of Morocco and the Frente Polisario to strictly abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreements, such as Military Agreement No 1, to avoid violence that could lead to a rise in hostilities in the territory.

"Furthermore, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and with many countries under lockdown, self-isolation or quarantine, South Africa calls on the international community to support efforts in the occupied territories and refugee camps, where the healthcare system is poor and medical supplies and equipment are limited.

"In this regard, South Africa calls on the Kingdom of Morocco, to fulfil its responsibility as the occupying power by ensuring the necessary access, and unhindered passage of humanitarian and medical supplies, to the territories that it occupies."

The Moroccan embassy in Pretoria on Tuesday weighed in on the matter, saying in a statement that South Africa's position was "completely at odds with the reality".

Referring to the disputed territory as Moroccan Sahara the embassy in Pretoria said the dispute over the Sahara was not about "decolonisation but about the territorial integrity" of Morocco.

"You cannot decolonise what is not a colony. Those who falsely claim that Morocco is a 'coloniser' are also attempting to rewrite history by pushing a false narrative, and in so doing, try to deny Morocco’s contribution to decolonisation and support to the liberation movements throughout the continent," said the Moroccan Embassy in Pretoria.

"All in all, for the Moroccan people, the Sahara issue is not only an item on the agenda of the UN Security Council. It rather represents a historical injustice done to Morocco in the recovery of its territorial integrity. It is a question intrinsically linked to the dignity and sovereignty of the Moroccan people."

The Star

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