March 6, 2014 (Johannesburg) — CYRIL Ramaphosa, President Jacob Zuma’s special envoy for South Sudan, is taking a week out of his hectic pre-election schedule to join a small army of foreign mediators trying to end Africa’s newest civil war.
Mr Ramaphosa’s involvement in a distant African conflict, only two months before South Africa’s elections, makes more sense than at first sight.
The 61-year-old tycoon is the deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC), which is in the vanguard of efforts to revive peace talks between the warring factions of South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Civil war broke out in the world’s youngest country on December 15 and as many as 10,000 people are feared to have been killed, with hundreds of thousands displaced. Uganda has sent troops to the oil-rich country, backing President Salva Kiir’s army against rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar. A fragile ceasefire broke down last month and Mr Machar’s forces have captured and held the strategic town of Malakal.
The Department of International Relations and Co-operation said on Wednesday that Mr Ramaphosa would spend a week in South Sudan and member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), the regional body co-ordinating myriad of special envoys from the African Union (AU), the European Union, the US, China, the UK, Norway and others.
Mr Ramaphosa was appointed in January and questions were immediately asked about South Africa’s interest and the perceived risk of him overlapping with former president Thabo Mbeki, the AU’s long-standing special representative to South Sudan and Sudan, from which the south gained independence in 2011 after a 50-year struggle.
In fact, Mr Ramaphosa’s visit reflects South Africa’s long involvement — the government has trained 1,600 officials and has forged close military links with South Sudan’s army before the outbreak of civil war. The ANC’s connections with the SPLM are also close: Sudanese sources in Addis Ababa say the ANC and Ethiopia’s ruling EPDRF party are facilitating talks between the SPLM political bureau’s main factions in the Ethiopian capital. If the talks go ahead this week, Mr Ramaphosa will be on hand to try to nudge them towards a peace deal.
“What is needed now is someone to force Salva Kiir and Riek Machar to sit down together,” said Jens Pedersen, policy adviser for the medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres. “If Mr Ramaphosa is the right guy to do that, so be it.”
Mr Ramaphosa can meet Mr Kiir in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Fixing an appointment with Mr Machar, who is thought to be based in Malakal, will be problematic, but important to establish South Africa as a neutral broker.
Like the AU, South Africa has sided with the legal authority — Mr Kiir — but will want to keep its options open because some analysts believe Mr Machar’s military alliance is superior. Igad mooted the idea of an East African peacekeeping force in South Sudan but did not address the key question of who would pay for it.