SA changes mind on Ivory Coast
Johannesburg - South Africa entered regional talks on Ivory Coast on Thursday defying international consensus recognising Alassane Ouattara as president and instead urging compromise to stamp out unrest.
It is a strategy South Africa has employed across the continent, most notably in neighbouring Zimbabwe, of encouraging compromise to end bloodshed - even if it runs against democratic election results.
"South Africa's strategy in Cote d'Ivoire has been to avoid alienating either side," said Laurence Caromba, analyst at the Centre for International Political Studies in Pretoria.
"South Africa still views its role in Africa as a mediator, and it believes the solution to conflict is power-sharing."
It had initially joined international consensus supporting Ouattara's victory over rival Laurent Gbagbo in a November run-off that was meant to end a decade of political turmoil that had plunged the country into civil war.
But after Gbagbo refused to step down and the situation again turned violent, South Africa took a neutral stance and urged a compromise, raising the possibility of a government of national unity.
"We hold no brief for anyone," Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Pretoria on Thursday, defending South Africa's position as a pragmatic approach aimed at ending the violence.
Elections are a process
"Even after the international community had supported Ouattara, there was no peace. There was no movement forward politically in that country," she said.
"The outcome of an election doesn't start and end with the voting itself," she said. "Elections are a process. It starts with the infallibility of the institutions that must run an election."
President Jacob Zuma was to push compromise at African Union talks on Thursday in Addis Ababa, a meeting snubbed by Gbagbo whose delegation also rejected proposals to end the crisis that were delivered at the meeting but not immediately made public.
South Africa's approach is informed by its own experience in reaching a negotiated settlement with the former whites-only apartheid regime, which resulted in the 1994 elections that brought Zuma's African National Congress to power.
That transition made South Africa a beacon on democracy and human rights on the continent. But as a mediator in African conflicts, Pretoria leans toward realpolitik rather idealism.
South Africa strongly promoted Zimbabwe's shaky unity government between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after elections failed violently in 2008.
Last month Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim said South Africa similarly wanted to find a compromise solution in Ivory Coast.
"They're trying to find some type of compromise solution whether they should share the presidency between the two presidents and whether they should continue with the interim government until they have new elections," he said.
"We have to do everything to avoid the country going back into conflict."
While that approach avoids bloodshed, Caromba said it also creates incentives for leaders to hang on to power.
"Instead of setting a precedent that elections must be honoured, it creates an incentive for heads of state who lose elections to stay on, hang on to power using the military, and then reclaim some of their international legitimacy by negotiating a settlement that gives up some [but not all] of their power."