Contradicting his own calls for African unity, Ramaphosa challenged Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara and discredited the country’s African allies.
Rabat – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa used his position as chairperson of the African Union (AU) to take a shot at Morocco’s territorial integrity during his Africa Day remarks on May 25.
After reflecting on the mission of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—the AU’s original name—and honoring revolutionary pan-African leaders, Ramaphosa addressed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent.
“The virus has exposed the deep inequalities that continue to exist on our continent and across the world. It has shown how far we are from realizing our developmental goals and our responsibilities to the citizens of our continent,” he said.
“But at the same time, this global crisis should enable a new Africa to come to the fore. It should be an Africa of heroic acts of solidarity, an Africa of cross-border collaboration and sharing of knowledge and resources, an Africa that is united by a common goal,” Ramaphosa continued.
“The challenge of this pandemic has shown how Africa is able to work together to solve its own problems,” he said. “Day by day, across our continent, we are seeing the unity that is our strength being put to the service of saving lives and supporting the vulnerable.”
Ramaphosa outlined the need to strengthen African solidarity, listing Agenda 2063, the African Continental Free Trade Area, and “Silencing the Guns” as examples of goals for which the continent must continue to strive.
Contradicting his own call for African unity, Ramaphosa then decided to throw into question the sovereignty of Morocco, an African state, and discredit the country’s African allies.
Calling out Western Sahara
“As Africans, we will continue to stand on the side of justice and support the people of Western Sahara in their enduring struggle for freedom and self-determination,” Ramaphosa said.
His rhetoric confirms his support for the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s (SADR) independence claims and reads as an attempt to align the position of the AU with his own agenda, despite the fact that the AU’s official stance affirms the exclusivity of the UN-led political process in reaching a solution to the conflict.
Not only does his statement attempt to undermine the Moroccanness of Western Sahara, it also seeks to diminish the African countries that have taken firm stances in support of Morocco’s territorial integrity.
The end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 proved successful for Moroccan diplomacy, to the dismay of SADR supporters Algeria and South Africa. Ten African countries made their recognition of Moroccan autonomy in Western Sahara uncontestable with the inauguration of diplomatic representations in the southern cities of Laayoune and Dakhla.
Cote D’Ivoire, Burundi, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, and Comoros opened general consulates in Laayoune. Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, and Liberia established general consulates in Dakhla.
Perhaps in a thinly veiled attempt to liken Morocco and Israel, Ramaphosa then added, “We also call for the end of the oppression of the Palestinian people and the occupation of their homeland.”
Perpetuating divisive rhetoric
Ramaphosa’s jabs follow South Africa’s ideological isolation during a video conference meeting of the UN Security Council on April 9.
All 14 other members of the council reiterated their support for the UN-led process in Western Sahara and expressed favor of resolution 2494, which states that the Western Sahara issue can only achieve a final solution through round table processes including Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the SADR’s Polisario Front.
Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Polisario Front met at a round table in Geneva, Switzerland in December 2018 and March 2019. At the end of the second meeting, the parties agreed to meet again in the same format.
As the UN Security Council members welcomed the impetus stemming from the two previous meetings between the concerned parties, the South African delegation lamented a “deadlock” in the political process.
South Africa also said the UN mission in Western Sahara needs to organize a referendum for the region’s population, even though the Security Council has definitively rejected that option since 2004, and called for a ceasefire in Western Sahara, a region that has seen no conflict since 1991.
President Ramaphosa seldom shies away from anti-Moroccan rhetoric and continues to use his power within the AU to project his ideology despite the lack of support from other African states, and he is not the first or only South African official to do so.
The South African minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, also gave a speech in December 2019 directly questioning Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara during a visit to the Algerian embassy in Pretoria.
Morocco’s attempts to salvage diplomacy
In line with King Mohammed VI’s vision for pan-African cooperation and development, Morocco has made several attempts to turn the tense tide of Morocco-South Africa relations.
In October 2019, President Ramaphosa received the first Moroccan ambassador to South Africa in 15 years, Youssef Amrani, signaling the warming of diplomacy between the two countries. Morocco had recalled its ambassador to South Africa in 2004 following Pretoria’s decision to recognize the SADR.
Amrani shared with Morocco World News after his appointment his ambition to work on instilling Morocco’s “desire to reinforce bonds of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.”
Morocco and South Africa have since exchanged few kind remarks, and relations have yet to tangibly improve.
In January 2020, the South African Football Association (SAFA) withdrew from the FUTSAL Africa Cup of Nations competition in Laayoune, southern Morocco, and called Laayoune a “disputed region.”
Amrani insists, however, that Rabat and Pretoria can—and should—maintain strong bilateral relations. In an interview with SABC Digital News that same month, Amrani stood by his firm belief in Morocco and South Africa’s “African responsibility,” calling upon both countries to work together towards continental stability and socio-economic prosperity.
In March 2020, the speaker of Morocco’s House of Representatives (lower house), Habib El Malki, expressed his hope to see Morocco and South Africa move past superficial disagreements and build exemplary parliamentary and economic relations.
During a meeting with Masondo Amos Nkosiyakhe, Chairperson of South Africa’s National Council of Provinces Party, the Moroccan MP emphasized the “common memory of the struggle against the apartheid regime.”
The two politicians recalled the historic meeting in 1994 between Nelson Mandela and the late King Hassan II in Morocco, and Amos Nkosiyakhe expressed his gratitude to Morocco for the support it gave to the South African people in their struggle against apartheid.
“We share many things and we are optimistic about the possibility of overcoming the obstacles to the development of the continent,” Amos Nkosiyakhe said.
A lost cause?
Despite the mutual respect between Moroccan and South African institutions and a history of shared pan-African ideology, President Ramaphosa has once again reaffirmed that he will not back down from his support for the SADR’s independence claims.
Moroccan and South African diplomats and politicians have been trying to promote friendship and prosperity, but Ramaphosa’s latest dig shows that South Africa’s long-standing relationship with the Polisario Front and unwavering position on Western Sahara continues to prove an impediment to strengthening cooperation between the two African poles.