Africa’s history unfulfilling

2010-08-11 00:00

Burundi, Sudan, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo — these are the African states where South Africa has tried to keep the peace. Based on its own experience of conflict resolution, this is seen in some circles as repayment of a continental debt. The outcomes have been mixed and sometimes disappointing.

This book’s contributors generally agree that South Africans have been blinded by the successful outcome of their own history of negotiations. One writer describes it as unAfrican and therefore unlikely to be transferable. Many of the continent’s conflicts are factional; extremely complex and often regional; sustained by economic motives; and prolonged by fear of retribution, judicial or otherwise. They are (fortunately) a far cry from South African experience.

There have been other­ weaknesses in South Africa’s approach. One is a certain arrogance that accompanies the attitude of a regional power and is seen elsewhere in Africa as sub-imperial. Under the Thabo Mbeki administration in particular, foreign policy was driven by anti-Western sentiment that overrode a concern about human rights — Sudan and Zimbabwe are good examples. Africanness became a virtue in itself — yet ethics, not partisanship­, are the hallmarks of mediation.

In the case of Burundi, South Africa was left holding a poisoned chalice with key participants absent from the peace process and later coerced into it. In Ivory Coast, the efforts of South Africa were faced by a hostile francophone bloc. And the African Union has consistently failed to provide the resources to back successful mediation.

Jan van Eck and Laurie Nathan are well-known South African contributors to this book, which contains a great deal of interesting information and opinion in a poorly documented field. But some of the chapters are dreary, possibly victims of unimaginative translation from the French. And the work itself seems to have been rather hastily cobbled together.

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