Quicksands of diplomacy

A cargo ship, the World Cup and the wrangle over Western Sahara are factors in a bizarre face-off between Africa’s powerhouse nations, SA and Morocco, writes Ranjeni Munusamy


On May 1 2017, a rather peculiar drama played out at Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape. Not many people paid attention to it as SA’s news cycle was dominated by reports that the then president Jacob Zuma was booed at Cosatu’s main Workers’ Day rally in the Free State, forcing the event to be called off.


Meanwhile, a bulk vessel NM Cherry Blossom, laden with 55,000 tons of phosphate en route from Morocco to New Zealand, was seized in terms of a maritime court order obtained by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and the Polisario Front.


The Algeria-backed Polisario Front, the independence movement for Western Sahara, has been running a global campaign to declare Moroccan exports from the disputed territory illegal. According to the Institute for Security Studies, the court papers included an article by the then South African minister of international relations & co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, calling for an end to the exploitation of the resources of Western Sahara.


Morocco was, obviously, furious about the seizure of the ship. Its state media reported that SA was trying to “sabotage” Morocco’s commercial interests following its re-admittance to the African Union in January that year. SA had campaigned against Morocco’s readmission and was among a minority of African nations that voted against it.


The Moroccan phosphates company OCP, which is 95% state owned, refused to participate in the legal proceedings in the Cherry Blossom case, saying the South African judiciary had no legitimacy and no jurisdiction to rule on the use of natural resources in the Sahara region.


OCP called it “political piracy committed under judicial cover”.


Fertile soil for conflict


The matter dragged on for a year while the ship remained anchored off the Port Elizabeth coast. The high court in Port Elizabeth ordered that the cargo be auctioned but no bids were received as Moroccan authorities vowed to pursue legal action against any potential purchasers of the fertiliser.


Eventually, in May 2018, the Cherry Blossom set sail from South African waters after the ship-owners bought the cargo and sold it to OCP for the nominal sum of $1 (about R14).


The saga was an unprecedented face-off between SA and another African state and the antagonism between the two nations continues to brew. The rift first opened in 2004 when SA recognised the SADR and the then president Thabo Mbeki urged other African nations to support self-determination for Western Sahara.


Relations hit a new low in the past few weeks when SA hosted a Southern African Development Community solidarity conference on Western Sahara in Pretoria. Annoyed by this, Morocco hastily convened a counter conference in Marrakesh on the same day.


As things turned out, the Marrakesh conference drew a bigger, more high-profile crowd of African diplomats.


So it is with some trepidation that I request an interview with Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, in Rabat. It is one thing to listen to foreign diplomats in SA grumble about their frustrations with our immigration policies and impediments to investment. It is quite something else to question a powerful kingdom about the rancorous and messy diplomatic duel with our country.


Bourita is soft spoken and gracious as he ushers us into an expansive, ornate office with a panoramic view of an ancient citadel and valley below.


Along the boulevard in front, flags of the Holy See are being mounted in anticipation of the visit by Pope Francis the next day.


Healing religious rifts


The meeting between the pope and King Mohammed VI, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and “commander of the faithful” in the Muslim world, was significant for the global community as they encouraged religious dialogue and co-existence at a time of increasing radicalism and fanaticism in the world.


Bourita says the pope and the king had convergent views on the rights of, and compassion for, migrants.


“Since 2014 we have regularised 50,000 subSaharan Africans, allowing them to have access to employment, to schools, to hospitals,” says Bourita. “The migrant is not a criminal. The migrant is a human being.”


The South African government was at that very time trying to fire fight another flare-up of attacks against foreign nationals while denying that these were prompted by xenophobia.


So while SA is losing face with other nations on the continent, Morocco is reaching out to embrace them — although there are accusations that these relations are incentivised.


Bourita says Morocco supported the anti-apartheid struggle, hosted Nelson Mandela in 1962 and responded to his request for arms. But the ANC’s historical ties to the Polisario run deeper and inform SA’s solidarity on the Western Sahara issue.


Bourita says this approach is flawed.


‘Don’t interfere in our backyard’


“Geographically we are very far from each other, we are the two extremes in Africa, so we don’t have any bilateral issue normally. We don’t have common borders, we don’t have territorial issues. The problem is linked to one thing: SA decided to have a position on an issue which is hundreds of kilometres far from it, a position which is in contradiction with the UN and now in contradiction with the AU positions.”


Bourita represented Morocco in a second round of UN-mediated talks in Switzerland last month aimed at negotiating a compromise on the Western Sahara dispute. Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania are engaged in the talks, which began in December, mediated by former German president Horst Köhler.


Morocco has offered autonomy to Western Sahara but the Polisario Front rejects this and wants a referendum that offers the independence of the territory as an option.


Morocco has been accused of stalling but Bourita says with the negotiations resuming after six years, it would be difficult to imagine a breakthrough after just two rounds of talks.


“What is important is that there is a definition of the parameters of the solution. There is a Security Council resolution that the solution should be realistic, pragmatic and enduring based on compromise.”


The Sadc solidarity conference hosted by SA ran counter to this process, says Bourita.


“Normally if you are a country working within an international community, you should help, you should not prejudge, you should not be one-sided. You say the parties have accepted to negotiate within the UN, let’s support them and let’s accept whatever they decide.


“SA has chosen another way, saying ‘I have a solution for you, I can decide on your behalf and I have even taken some decisions on the basis of the solution I think,’” says Bourita.


He says the Western Sahara dispute should not be confused with the situation in the Middle East. “In Palestine there is a UN decision talking about a twostate solution. For Sahara, there is a decision talking about a political process, a negotiation to find a solution with Algeria.


“Worldwide, the presence of Israel in Palestine is recognised as an occupation. We are challenging our brothers in SA to find one resolution of the UN qualifying the Moroccan presence as an occupation.”


If SA wants to be an “honest broker”, it should understand the two positions, he says.


“When two of your brothers are fighting, Morocco and Algeria, you will not help that dispute by being with one against another.”


Bourita makes no bones about the fact that the Marrakesh conference was convened as a countermove to the gathering in Pretoria. Morocco wanted to send three messages, he says.


The first is that most African countries are in line with Morocco’s position. “The conference in Pretoria should not be considered as the reference for the African position,” Bourita says.


Battle of the conferences


The second is that the Sadc solidarity conference was a means to divide Africa. Bourita says last year’s AU summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania, decided on a consensus position on the Western Sahara issue.


“Who is dividing Africa? Who has decided that those who are against Morocco should meet together? Our message was to say the unity is in Marrakesh and division is in Pretoria.”


The third message was the stinger.


“Morocco is not any country. Morocco has its weight in Africa. People in SA are maybe being misled by thinking that maybe we can do this and Morocco has no weight and no-one will follow. Morocco has weight and his majesty has credibility in Africa.


“They had chosen the date, they had chosen the theme. We told them: ‘Same date, same theme, let’s see.’”


Morocco’s diplomatic manoeuvre seemingly paid off as 37 nations attended its conference and assented to its resolution. The Sadc declaration listed 24 countries supporting the solidarity pledge, including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.


The Marrakesh conference was organised in just 10 days, says Bourita. What’s more, the invitation was extended by him, not the king.


“If his majesty was the one who invited, we would have 40 to 45 at the highest level.”


This must be diplomacy-speak for: “Mine is bigger than yours.”


Some countries that were initially listed in the Sadc conference documents as “like-minded countries”, such as the US, Russia, Germany and Britain, are not reflected in the final communiqué published on the Dirco website. Bourita claims these countries protested and had their names removed.


‘Sister peoples of Western Sahara’


In response to questions about SA’s position on Western Sahara, Dirco spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya referred the Sunday Times to minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s speech delivered at the Sadc conference.


In her address, Sisulu said: “Although the UN has taken an active role in this matter, we as Sadc members have decided that our solidarity will complement these efforts; for as long as our sister peoples of Western Sahara continue to be denied their inalienable right to self-determination and independence consistent with the principles and purposes of the charter of the UN there is no postcolonial Africa.


“The Sahrawi people are not asking for something impossible, but, a right to self-determination so that they can take responsibility for their own destiny,” Sisulu said.


Asked to comment on Bourita’s assertion that SA should not be dividing Africa, Mabaya said: “The solidarity Sadc conference was hosted in SA by Sadc.”


He would not comment on the claim that some countries asked for their names to be removed from the Sadc communiqué.


Bourita says while he has engaged with the former minister Nkoana-Mashabane on the standoff, he and Sisulu have not been able to meet.


He says SA and Morocco are missing out on opportunities for trade and investment, and that instead of the continuing impasse, the two countries should be working to develop a model for interAfrican and South-South co-operation.


Areas of possible co-operation include developing an African free trade zone and open skies. There is also potential for a partnership between Royal Air Moroc and SAA, he says.


“We have a responsibility of two important countries economically in Africa — like the two doors of Africa — to work together, to push the African countries into this necessary emergence of the economy.”


In other words, we could all play nicely if SA butts out of our business.


But SA has taken a firm stance on the issue of Western Sahara and will not budge on the demand for a referendum.


Addressing the solidarity conference, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “While we are here to express our unwavering solidarity with the just cause of our brothers and sisters, any actions going forward must be decided upon by the Saharawi people and not any external entity.”


So our rumble with Morocco is destined to continue.


Moroccan journalist Adel Zobairi, who reports extensively on the Sahrawi dispute, has another theory for the falling out between SA and his country: the Fifa World Cup.


Both nations competed to host the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. The leaders of both nations were apparently irate about the opposing bids from another African country. What made matters worse is that when the Fifa scandal erupted, it was claimed that Morocco had actually won the vote for the 2010 bid but that SA got the tournament due to bribery.


And to add insult to injury, SA was one of 11 African states to snub Morocco’s bid last year to host the 2026 World Cup.


But this surely cannot be the diplomatic version of boys fighting over balls and boats.


It is a principled dispute about sovereignty and self-determination.




Munusamy was in Rabat for Pope Francis’s visit as part of a media tour for African and Latin American journalists hosted by the Moroccan government