One has to wonder whether South Africa is failing to provide leadership on the continent when the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, comes on a state visit last week and we remain silent on our descent into chaos.
Based on official statements made by our public representatives, one would think the DRC is a nation at peace and merely going through a leadership transition. It was all pomp and ceremony, and the usual platitudes about strengthening economic trade and investment. It was as if the rising instability and violence gripping the DRC, causing tens of thousands to flee to neighbouring countries was happening somewhere else.
Even one of Kabila’s erstwhile allies, Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, seems to have lost faith in the ability of Kabila to govern his country, six months after Kabila was to step down according to its constitution. Angola is bearing the brunt of Kabila’s misrule, with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the border and placing Angola under strain.
One of the poorest regions in the DRC – the Kasais – is wracked by unfathomable violence. The UN says it has found 42 mass graves and the UN Human Rights Council says there will be an independent international investigation into war crimes. It’s widely reported that government forces have used disproportional force against followers of the rebel group Kamwina Nsapu, carrying out summary executions and dumping the bodies in mass graves. The rebel group is accused of decapitating 40 policemen, and recruiting child soldiers as young as 10. According to the Catholic Church, more than 3 300 have been killed in the Kasais since October.
As a result of the violence, the UN Children’s Fund estimates that 400 000 children are at risk of acute malnutrition, and 600 schools have been attacked or destroyed. It is estimated that 1.3 million civilians have been displaced. The numbers are staggering if you compare them to internal displacement in other countries. In 2016, there were 920 000 internally displaced in the DRC, 824 000 displaced in Syria, and 659 000 in Iraq.
Last year, President Jacob Zuma did say something – he expressed concern about the political violence in the DRC, and said it was reversing the gains of democracy. This year, we have heard nothing about the carnage or its root causes, which has far surpassed the levels of violence in 2016.
The root causes go back to the dangerous political stalemate that has resulted from Kabila’s refusal to step down, as he uses the excuse that voter registration needs to be completed first.
The Kamwina Nsapu rebels are demanding that Kabila’s government implement a deal that was signed on December 31 last year, requiring Kabila to step down after elections this year. It was the Catholic bishops which helped to negotiate the agreement of securing an election this year to prevent a renewed civil war. In January, the bishops said they expected the deal to fail, and in March withdrew from talks. It’s clear Kabila has little intention of fulfilling his side of the deal.
The rebellion against Kabila that began in Kasai-Central has spread to five out of 26 provinces and threatens to not only destabilise the country, but drag in neighbouring countries.
Now was the time for South Africa to take a principled stand and address concerns about the political violence which is out of control but, most importantly, address its root cause – the need for Kabila to commit to stepping down this year and implement the December 31 agreement.
Whether this was discussed behind closed doors, we don’t know, but our official public silence on the devastating developments over the past eight months is unexplainable.
The very institutions pushing for peace in the DRC are now under threat in the current environment. The Catholic Church, which has historically attempted to play a role in conflict resolution in the country, is now being sabotaged by forces seeking to ensure the December agreement doesn’t hold. The destruction of churches, gang violence against church members, and the death of members of the clergy have been reported, but nothing is being done about it.
The UN is resorting to its usual instruments in an attempt to curb the violence – extending sanctions, expanding its arms embargo on the DRC, imposing asset freezes and travel bans until July 2018. But in reality none of these measures are likely to improve the situation on the ground.
What could have made a difference is if South Africa placed significant pressure on Kabila to do the right thing. But it would seem that instead we gave him the thumbs up.
* Shannon Ebrahim, group foreign editor
The Sunday Independent