S. Africa tries anew to play peacemaker Zaire, rebels accept offer of negotiations

April 02, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Newly assertive South Africa is taking the lead in the tortuous search for peace in Zaire -- a role that the United States and other powers have hoped the South Africans would take in this and other conflicts.

The government of President Nelson Mandela, acting on the warring factions' stated interest in peace negotiations, has offered to serve as host to talks in Johannesburg this week that could lead to a breakthrough in the civil war, during which the rebels have seized about a quarter of the country.

Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko and rebel leader Laurent Kabila have accepted the offer. South Africa was host to fruitless talks between the two sides in Cape Town and Pretoria in February, but with Kabila's rebels advancing toward Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, the stakes are now much higher.

"The South African government regards the proposed negotiations between the conflicting parties in Zaire as being of the utmost importance for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict in the Great Lakes region," said a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pretoria, the South African capital.

Talks this weekend

The talks are expected to be held in Pretoria this weekend.

The latest peace move comes in the wake of a series of summits this month in Nairobi, Kenya, and Togo, and follows a meeting between South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Mobutu in Kinshasa last month.

Officials in Johannesburg stressed that the initiative was in line with United Nations and Organization of African Unity peace proposals, and was not a unilateral South African initiative. The talks will be led by U.N. envoy Mohamed Sahnoun, who arrived in Johannesburg yesterday.

"It's part of a collective effort," said Pieter Swanepoel, foreign affairs spokesman in Pretoria. "It's not that South Africa is playing the only role. We are really just acting as a facilitator."

Under the white-controlled apartheid regime that ruled South Africa until 1990, the country was treated as a pariah. But now that it has been welcomed back into the community of nations with a new democratic government, this richest and most powerful African nation has shown increasing willingness to involve itself in continental crises from Sudan to Swaziland. Its diplomats have been in intense contacts over recent days with representatives of both Mobutu and the rebels, setting the stage for the meeting in Johannesburg.

"South Africa has a much more pro-active regional foreign policy," said Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs. "It illustrates we are no longer sensitive perhaps to taking the lead in southern Africa as we were three years ago.

"Secondly, it illustrates that clearly President Mandela is concerned, like many other African leaders, with the need to acquire a peaceful settlement without which the prospects of regional stability remain a vain hope.

"Obviously any continuation of the image of instability in Africa is going to negatively affect us in terms of our own development prospects."

South Africa's hopes of a major influx of foreign investment are already hostage to political anxieties within its own borders -- ranging from rampant crime to what will happen when Mandela leaves office in 1999.

Economic interest

Beyond geo-politics, South Africa has a more tangible economic interest in Zaire, potentially one of the richest African nations, with its copper, gold and other natural resources.

South African exports to Zaire more than doubled from 1993 to 1995, the latest period for which figures are available. Its imports from Zaire also grew, though less dramatically, over the same period.

The South African peace initiative also coincides with intensifying international pressure, led by the United States, for countries to handle their own regional crises. The Clinton administration has been pressing African nations to form a crisis intervention force.

In Johannesburg in December, former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, "I see very few countries with greater potential to help shape the 21st century than the new South Africa."

But South Africa has offered only cautious support for helping organize and fund the force of as many as 10,000 troops.

Said analyst Mills: "It's very important that South Africa takes a pro-active role in this regard, otherwise simply the outside world has the notion that Africa's problems can't be solved by Africans."

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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