SOUTH AFRICA was initially hesitant to get involved in the Zaire crisis. In November, when the Great Lake region summit discussed spreading rebellion in that pivotal Central African country, President Nelson Mandela's envoy was such an insignificant observer he had to sit outside and wait.
But now that other peace efforts have failed, President Mandela is using his stature in the international community to start what may be the last opportunity at mediation. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila secretly jetted to South Africa to meet with Mr. Mandela. Later the two had a press conference. Meanwhile, Honore Ngbanda, security adviser to Zaire's president, also traveled to South Africa for talks with the Mandela government and U.S. officials.
Rebels demand that Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko be ousted and a new government formed. Meanwhile, Uganda proposes a cease-fire and new elections. So far, the Mobutu regime has rejected direct negotiations with the rebels. However, Mr. Mandela insists peace in Zaire "can only be brought about by negotiation with Laurent Kabila."
Mr. Ngbanda's talks in South Africa are somewhat of a mystery. It is assumed that President Mobutu authorized the trip, but that is not certain. In the past, the Zairian government has repeatedly ruled out any negotiations, despite the recent rebel victories which have President Mobutu's inner circle deeply worried. As the Zairian army has been reduced to ragtag armed bands, the president has hired Serbian mercenaries to try to re-establish discipline and to fly Russian-made fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
Mr. Mandela's personal involvement in the Zairian crisis signals his concern that fighting may spill over to neighboring countries. This is no empty worry. Zaire is surrounded by nine countries in a complex ethnic patchwork. If things totally fall apart in Zaire, the whole region could be destabilized.
Pub Date: 2/28/97