The problem with Cyril Ramaphosa’s friendly visit to Kinshasa

On August 10, 2018, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa met with his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa in his capacity as the current chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This “working visit” came soon after Kabila had declared that he would not be seeking a third, divisive and plainly unconstitutional mandate in long-delayed elections scheduled for December.

As has become the norm in African diplomacy, the meeting seemingly made no tangible progress on the democratic front and yielded little else but a polite joint communique and the obligatory officious photograph such get-togethers customarily produce. In fact, Kabila emerged smiling and relatively unscathed from his encounter with one of Africa’s most powerful leaders, and that was quite an achievement for a president who has long disregarded the basic tenets of democracy. 

Diplomatic etiquette and civilities aside, one would have expected Ramaphosa to show public concern with how the Kabila administration has been clamping down on civil and media liberties, civil rights activists and opposition demonstrations and creating an antagonistic electoral environment ahead of a landmark poll; one would have expected Ramaphosa to stand up for the thousands of girls and women who have been victims of mass rapes, cannibalism and dismemberment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) volatile Kasai region; one would have expected Ramaphosa  – a former trade unionist – to show solidarity with the estimated 40,000 child labourers who are reportedly working in Congolese cobalt mines.

Ramaphosa could also have touched on how Kinshasa barred opposition leader Moise Katumbi from entering the DRC, ostensibly to prevent the former governor of Katanga Province from lodging an application to participate in December’s presidential election. And at the very least, one would have expected Ramaphosa to publicly promote the liberal and democratic ideals, which he negotiated at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the difficult and combative talks which gave birth to the new South Africa in 1994.

Instead, according to the communique released by South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation after the meeting, Ramaphosa “commended President Joseph Kabila for honouring the Congolese Constitution as promised to the Nation”. This unwarranted diplomatic praise could embolden an undoubtedly wayward, despotic and violent regime months before a critical poll (which might not even take place).

Ramaphosa should lead the way

We need to hear Ramaphosa standing up for the progressive values he helped craft for South Africa at CODESA – unwavering respect for the right to life, the rule of law, all-inclusive human rights and adherence to the spirit of constitutional rule – for the good of African people living under difficult, despotic and murderous conditions. South Africa exported goods worth $23.7bn to African countries in 2017 and it hosts millions of political and economic migrants from many of Africa’s perpetual trouble spots – the DRC, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, and Nigeria.

South Africa should assume an unwavering leadership role in a hitherto ideologically rudderless continent and export its electoral and democratic workings and values to fragile African states. Indeed, South Africa should break ranks with Africa’s strongmen and condemn tyrannical, illiberal and problematic actions on democratic and humanitarian grounds. 

Africans besieged by tyrannical rule should begin to hear words of support (and see definitive actions) coming from Ramaphosa and Africa’s leading liberal democrats and not just EU and US actors. As things stand today, with civil conflicts, tyranny and third-term and sixth-term obsessions in Sudan and Uganda respectively, casting an ever-darkening shadow over Africa’s postcolonial dispensations, the continent needs South Africa’s strong liberal voice to sound again, as it once did under the late Nelson Mandela’s leadership.

Tata Mandela’s passion for universal peace, humanitarian justice and human rights introduced a new political paradigm in Africa, which has found no influential takers in the African Union. Speaking out against totalitarianism and standing on the right side of long-suffering people should not be deemed politically taboo or treacherous in African politics. With Ramaphosa leading the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa, it remains to be seen whether the Southern African nation will leverage its substantial economic power for diplomatic influence and help navigate Africa towards a rich and fully liberated destiny. No doubt, it is in South Africa’s economic and geopolitical interests to do so.

Quiet diplomacy won’t work

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) policy, a voluntary instrument for monitoring performance in governance, which was introduced by the African Union in 2003, has failed to introduce substantial change in governance policies in places such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Angola and Gabon – nations that can’t seem to uphold multiparty democracy or hold free, fair and transparent elections. The APRM’s “primary objective is to foster the adoption of policies, values, standards and practices of political and economic governance that lead to political stability, accelerated sub-regional and continental economic integration, economic growth and sustainable development”.

But only 35 out of 55 AU members have signed up for the APRM. Of the 35 APRM signatories, countries like Egypt, Sudan and Cameroon remain brutal and unrelenting dictatorships. So finding African solutions for African problems must begin with levelheaded and liberal African actors aligning themselves with progressive thinking and progressive movements that are people-centred.

Ramaphosa must change tack and break ranks with the brotherhood of African tyrants and liberator-turned-political villains and speak out against democratic infringements and despotic rule on the African continent.

South Africa has come a long way since 1974 when the apartheid regime detained Ramaphosa in solitary confinement for 11 months for organising rallies in support of Frelimo and Mozambique’s independence. But sadly, the struggle for economic, social and political well-being is far from over in Africa. This is why ordinary Africans still need to see his Pan-Africanist zeal for democratic and global liberties shining through the asphyxiating maze of totalitarianism that an unapologetic mob of bloodthirsty and dictatorial African leaders has woven. This is why Ramaphosa must stand behind the defenceless and long subjugated Congolese people and actively back the evolution of liberal democracy in the DRC and, indeed, Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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