Beyond the official explanation which centred on a bilateral military cooperation agreement, unpacking the real rationale behind South Africa’s involvement requires a closer reading of a new African geopolitical script of which Pretoria is very much a part. Such a reading must consider the economic (largely resource) interests that forced the long unstable central African country back into the global media spotlight this past month.
The CAR is rich in natural resources, including diamonds. Other extractive resources in the CAR include tin, iron ore, copper, manganese, graphite, gold and large undeveloped reserves of uranium, variously estimated at 15 000 to 32 000 tonnes of ore. Geological surveys also suggest the country is likely to be rich in oil.
Longer-term intra- and extra-African shifts undoubtedly are shaping developments in the CAR. Internally, the CAR has been chronically unstable for much of the five decades since nominal independence from France. Ensconced in one of Africa’s most unstable neighbourhoods, its territory has long harboured insurgent groups from Sudan’s Darfur region, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s north-east and others from further afield such as Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
Nevertheless, the crisis in the CAR should also be viewed against the background of changing geostrategic rivalries on the continent as they have increasingly crystallised in the aftermath of the Western intervention in Libya.
In this changing landscape, South Africa is pitched in a bruising contest with the United States and France, both of which have found a precarious entente on managing shared security, commercial and other interests threatened by major African crises. From the machinations in post-Gadaffi Libya, to the post-election crisis in the Ivory Coast and latterly Mali where Paris and Washington are united in confronting the jihadi threat, the emerging pattern is one of South Africa digging in its heels against its ‘so-called’ nemesis – western involvement in Africa.
In resisting what it sees as western interference and manipulation of some recent African crises for imperialist ends particularly in resource-rich contexts, Pretoria has sometimes been able to count on the opportunistic support of some key African states (for example, allying itself with Angola on the Ivorian crisis). However, Angola is also one of the sub-regional states which pushed for South Africa’s troop withdrawal at the 3 April summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). South Africa seemed to lack a diplomatic reading of the dynamics, where the region had ceased to support President Bozize even as South Africa was reinforcing its military presence. This is evident in the fact that the ECCAS regional force, MICOPAX (Mission for Consolidation of Peace in the CAR), did nothing to support the beleaguered CAR leader.
Significantly, Nigeria and South Africa have also diverged on all the recent regional crises. Nigeria and France, once bitter rivals for influence in Nigeria’s West African backyard, have grown diplomatically and strategically closer in recent years, including coordinating their approaches to the Ivorian and Malian crises.
South Africa’s pursuit of closer ties with emerging powers (particularly fellow members of the BRICS group) could be viewed by some as a way to deflect possible political pressure from its Western rivals. BRICS solidarity, however, is at its frailest when it comes to the politics of global resources control that underlie the current shifts in the CAR. Despite the loss of South African lives at the hands of the Seleka rebels and the accidental killing of Indian citizens by the French in CAR, the BRICS summit declaration in Durban neither condemned the CAR coup itself nor called for the restoration of Bozize’s government.
China has recently become a key player in oil exploration in the CAR. A turning point in France-CAR relations was seemingly reached when the now deposed Bozize granted oil exploration rights to the Chinese in 2009. In a speech that year, Bozize revealed that his offer of the same exploration rights to France had been rejected by Total Oil. Whilst France did reinforce its troops’ presence in the CAR from 250 to nearly 600 soldiers as rebels made their successful last push, Paris pointedly refused to intervene to save Bozize as it did previously in 2006 and 2007.
From diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, it seems that Paris saw CAR’s growing ties with China as undercutting French interests there. Beyond courting especially Chinese capital, Bozize opposed the acquisition by Areva, France’s nuclear giant, of mining rights held by the British-Canadian firm UraMin in 2007 – a key irritant in the relationship. Before approving Areva’s plan, which would see the company produce 1000 tonnes of uranium concentrates annually, Bozize initially demurred, describing the acquisition as “disregarding the rights and interests” of the Central African people. As late as January this year, Bozize proclaimed in defiance of continuing French pressures that he would continue to “strengthen ties with China [and] promote oil exploration and development”.
The CAR’s new ‘care-taker’ head of state, rebel leader Michel Djotodia, has announced plans to reconstitute the defeated national army with French and US help. Does this portend a new chapter in the protracted struggle for the control of the country and its resources? He also promised to revise mining and oil agreements concluded between the ousted regime and China. The new leader was silent about the future of the broader bilateral relations with Beijing, which trained about 40 CAR military officers yearly during Bozize’s rule.
For SA companies’ potential mining interests in CAR, these will only become more tenuous and difficult to defend in the increasingly contested landscape going forward. For firms reportedly granted mining licences, their concessions are also probably marginal in comparison to the Chinese and French ones given their respective economic heft and long-standing involvement the CAR.
Following this humiliating experience, a key lesson that South Africa ought to learn is that if it intends playing a high stakes geopolitical game of resource control and influence-seeking, it will require the necessary intelligence and other infrastructures to contest credibly. At a minimum, South Africa will need to better clarify the core rationales and interests in future deployments whilst levelling with its public — this is particularly the case as it expands its presence in the Eastern DRC, albeit now as a member of a UN intervention mission. The dangers inherent in a poorly prepared foreign intervention, especially in tough neighbourhoods frequented by experienced international rivals, have been made abundantly clear by this debacle.