Personalised politics: Joseph Kabila and Jacob Zuma’s close relationship is said to drive relations between the two countries. Picture: GETTY IMAGES / AFP / ALEXANDER JOE
Personalised politics: Joseph Kabila and Jacob Zuma’s close relationship is said to drive relations between the two countries. Picture: GETTY IMAGES / AFP / ALEXANDER JOE

When he is at home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila rarely leaves the presidential residence. His official visits to the far-flung corners of the enormous country he has ruled for more than 15 years are few and far between, and foreign trips are almost unheard of.

It was quite significant, then, for him to visit Pretoria in June for a private meeting with Jacob Zuma, and it underlines how important to Kabila his close relationship with the SA president has become.

Over the years, Zuma has arguably become Kabila’s closest ally on the continent, a relationship underpinned by personal favours that run contrary to the interests of both nations.

Kabila, who refused to step down when his final term ended in December last year, has been clinging to power and using delaying tactics to push back presidential elections. This has plunged the DRC into what is fast becoming its most serious crisis since the end of the war in 2003.

Yet, the SA administration has not only failed to address the issue, it has helped legitimise Kabila’s position.

Stephanie Wolters, head of the peace & security research programme at the Institute for Security Studies, says personal rapport drives the relationship between the countries.

"One of the issues is that the policy is not drafted by the ministry of foreign affairs, nor the embassy, and they are not consulted. They see Kabila as destabilising. SA’s policies on the DRC are instead made by the presidency because of the relationship between Zuma and Kabila," she says.

This highly personalised approach allows the DRC government to get away with grave human rights violations and is a comfort to Kabila, who has hardened his stance.

At the UN Human Rights Commission, SA voted against an international investigation into mass graves discovered by the UN in the Kasaï province, where fighting between the army and a militia has displaced 1.3m people.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), under SA’s leadership, has also failed to address the crisis. In his closing address at the 37th SADC summit in Pretoria last month, Zuma tacitly endorsed further delaying DRC elections beyond the December 2017 deadline agreed upon by Kabila’s majority and the opposition last year.

This would be the third postponement and third round of talks, but the Congolese opposition has refused to engage in what is widely perceived as Kabila’s attempt to buy time.

"We are puzzled. How can the SADC support a dictator against the will of its people?" asks Martin Fayulu, an opposition politician.

Strikingly, Zuma’s policies are hurting SA economic interests in the DRC. Grand Inga, a pharaonic project on the Congo River meant to provide electricity for the DRC and most of Southern Africa, has been repeatedly delayed by political instability in Kinshasa. It would offer a solution to the electricity deficit and boost economic development in the region.

As the DRC crisis lingers, the loss in potential revenue is already in the billions of dollars.

SA companies operating in the mining sectors are also becoming increasingly concerned by Pretoria’s attitude to Kabila. Though mines are mostly owned by Chinese, Indian and other foreign enterprises who have capital to develop Congolese mining assets, SA companies have found a niche as expert service providers. As the SA mining sector is shrinking, the DRC offers an attractive alternative to absorb excess labour.

SA is also the largest exporter of goods and services to the DRC, and its largest African donor in development aid. Yet Zuma seems to have taken the side of the president-on-borrowed-time, as the Congolese have nicknamed Kabila. This departure from democratic SA’s role as the continent’s peace broker is particularly obvious in the DRC, where former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki played important, positive roles in pushing an agenda of peace.

Ironically, SA was a decisive actor in the last two elections, printing ballot papers and transporting them to remote parts of the DRC in SA aircraft.

"Zuma has decided to prioritise solidarity with other heads of state," concludes Wolters. "That is not surprising when you look at the current crisis in SA. He violated the rights of his own people, why would he care about the rights of the Congolese?"

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