Rwandan President Paul Kagame. File picture by: Sayyid Azim, File

David Himbara asks why SA appear to be weak to an inconsequential aggressor like Rwanda?


South Africa and Rwanda are as different as night and day. South Africa’s population is nearly five times bigger with 52.5 million people versus Rwanda’s 11.4 million. South Africa is Africa’s largest economy with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $384.3 billion (R4.1 trillion) while Rwanda is among the smallest with a GDP of $7.1bn.

South Africa is a multiparty democracy with an independent judiciary and robust media. Rwanda is an autocratic state in which genuine opposition and media leaders are either in prison or exile.

South Africa’s African policy has been mainly to support continental institution-building such as the AU and associated organs, including the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and Pan-African Parliament. Rwanda’s has been mainly internal and external aggression.

For example, between 1998 and 2000, Kenya severed diplomatic relations with Rwanda after Seth Sendashonga, Rwanda’s former minister of the interior, was assassinated in Nairobi.

In 1999 and 2000, Rwanda fought with Uganda inside the Democratic Republic of Congo after the two belligerents invaded that country twice – in 1996 and 1998.

Relations between Rwanda and Tanzania nearly broke down last year after President Jakaya Kikwete suggested Rwanda negotiate with its opposition groups.

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame responded that he would “hit” Kikwete at an opportune moment.

This month, South Africa and Rwanda expelled their diplomats in response to the fourth attempted murder in Joburg of the exiled former Rwandan army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa. This was after the murder of exiled former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in South Africa on New Year’s Day.

Two related questions arise. Why does South Africa with its moral capital, democratic credentials, size and proven continental leadership appear to be weak and accommodating to an inconsequential aggressor like Rwanda?

Why appease a foreign state whose embassy is a war room of assassins intent on killing refugees on South African soil?

The answers are to be found in the nature of African leadership or, to be precise, the leadership vacuum at country level and in continental institutions.

Despite recent democratic gains on the continent, Africa faces an unenviable situation. African countries are either characterised by entrenched authoritarian rulers or fragile democracies in which leaders are preoccupied with domestic agendas. The two realities have had a devastating impact on the AU and associated institutions.

Thirteen years after replacing the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the AU has quietly reverted to being the OAU.

We may recall the infamous clause that rendered the OAU a club of autocrats, namely, “non-interference in the internal affairs of sister states” no matter what crime they committed against their own citizens. Africa is creeping back to that state of affairs.

For example, the extraordinary session of the AU assembly on October 12 resolved that no sitting African head of state shall appear before any court during their term of office.

The AU resolution sought to protect Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto whose cases for crimes against humanity were referred to the International Criminal Court long before the two became Kenyan president and deputy president respectively in April last year. Sudan’s military strongman Omar al-Bashir, who is indicted for war crimes in Darfur, is safeguarded by the same AU resolution.

African leaders are, therefore, constructing a fortified wall around themselves, citing a non-interference clause in another guise.

Within this broad context, African leadership realities become crystal clear. Continental leadership is a combination of autocrats and heads of fragile democracies with no one willing to rock the boat.

Thrown to the wind is leadership by principles that showed greater promise with the launch of the AU in 2002. Appeasement or the yielding to the demands and behaviour of belligerents is back in. As in the days of the OAU, conciliatory “African values”, even at the expense of justice or other principles, are becoming the norm.

This is the environment in which aggressors such as Rwanda thrive. As they push their luck and there is no one to say “don’t”, they become more adventurous. The more countries turn a blind eye by hiding behind appeasement masquerading as “African values” in dealing with the likes of Rwanda, the more Rwanda engages in what Justice Minister Jeff Radebe mildly termed “illegal activities”.

South Africa is, by any definition, a big political and economic power in Africa. To quote Voltaire, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

By absconding from its leadership role, South Africa is creating space for small-time tyrants to create chaos – not only on the continent but even inside South Africa. Tolerating such behaviour makes a mockery of what South Africa stands for. South Africa is about constitutionalism, the rule of law and comradeship with African people, who desperately seek to domesticate these values in their own countries.


* Himbara is a Rwandan exile and South African permanent resident. He is a former senior advisor to President Paul Kagame.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent