Eritrea and South Africa formally established diplomatic relations in 1994. Eighteen years later, the two states seem to be strengthening their bilateral relations.
In March, Iqbal Jhazbhay, the new South African ambassador to Eritrea, presented his credentials to President Issayas Afeworki. Significantly, Jhazbhay was warmly received by the president only a week after his arrival, which is a very unusual occurrence. This demonstrates the importance that Eritrea accords to South Africa.
Jhazbhay is a member of the international relations sub-committee of the ANC’s national executive committee. He is also a member of the ANC’s international relations rapid response task team, which steers party-to-party relations, including those with the ruling parties of South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
In May, Eritrea introduced regular flights to South Africa and in July a South African business delegation visited Eritrea and was received at the highest level. This visit was meant to explore additional areas of trade and investment as Eritrea has large deposits of precious minerals such as gold and copper.
More significantly, in August, Osman Salih Mohammed, Eritrea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, paid an official visit to South Africa, his second since President Jacob Zuma took office in 2009. During this well-publicised visit, he met Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation. They signed a declaration of intent and promised to work towards developing mutual business interests. They also exchanged views on developments in the Horn of Africa, including the stability of Somalia and the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan.
For Eritrea, building a strategic relationship with South Africa is a top foreign policy priority. Firstly, Eritrea is animated by the long-term economic objective of reviving its declining economy by developing its mining sector, in which South Africa mining companies are increasingly engaged. For instance, Senet, a South African mining infrastructure company, has effectively developed the infrastructure of Bisha, Eritrea’s principal mine. Moreover, South Africa is one of Eritrea’s major trading partners. According to South African sources, in 2010 exports from South Africa to Eritrea amounted to R202m and consisted mainly of mining equipment.
Secondly, from an Eritrean perspective, building an alliance with South Africa has an added value. Indeed, following the loss of diplomatic and financial support from Egypt and Libya, Eritrea views South Africa as a useful African ally. South Africa is serving a second term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The Security Council had imposed sanctions on Eritrea in December 2009 over concerns that it supported insurgents seeking to destabilise Somalia. In December 2011 it tightened the sanctions in a resolution cosponsored by Nigeria and Gabon. Eritrea wants South Africa to use its membership to back the lifting of the Eritrean sanctions, which were called for by the AU.
Thirdly, Eritrea is expending great diplomatic energy to reengage with the international community, the AU and regional states. For instance, in August 2011 President Isaias made a three-day visit to Uganda.
Fourthly, Eritrea has taken a calculated risk to counter the perceived influence of Ethiopia in the AU. In July, it lent its support to South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who subsequently was elected the AU Commission (AUC) chairperson.
Undeniably, Eritrean–South African relations have received renewed impetus as a result of this tightly contested AUC election. South Africa’s courting of Eritrea was partially informed by the short-term benefit of gaining Eritrea’s vote in the election. The election also unseated Jean Ping, the incumbent from Gabon, who had spearheaded the vote for the sanctions against Eritrea. According to sources in Addis Ababa, South Africa was visibly exasperated by Ethiopia’s backing of Ping. In fact, during the diplomatic campaign it mounted to get Dlamini-Zuma elected, South Africa faced stiff challenges from Nigeria and Ethiopia. These two states did not approve of South Africa’s breaking of the gentlemen’s agreement that the chairperson position should not be contested by the larger African states.
At the forefront of South Africa’s foreign policy seems to be the conviction that there ought to be an AU chairperson who can chart a distinctly independent course in African affairs and become the only voice of the continent on issues of mutual concern. South Africa felt the AU was marginalised in the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya. Moreover, the AUC chairperson election betrayed South Africa’s growing ambition to use the AU to enhance its soft power. Indeed, South Africa wanted to gain more visibility as the continent’s leader and more influence in AU decision-making.
Predictably, economic necessity, not altruism, motivated South Africa to befriend Eritrea. It wants to ensure that its companies get a sizeable share of Eritrea’s potentially lucrative mining concessions and agreements. Yet South Africa’s relations with Eritrea extend beyond AU power politics and economic motivations. South Africa has started focusing on what is happening in the stormy and polarised Horn of Africa and on achieving lasting peace and stability there.
The ANC’s international relations policy discussion document explains that “the damage that the current stalemate (between Ethiopia and Eritrea) has caused to the region and to relations between these related peoples is huge”. It demonstrates that South Africa is prepared to diplomatically engage with the two states and help them negotiate an amenable agreement that could break the stalemate and ultimately lead to an all-inclusive regional security arrangement.
However, it seems South Africa has not fully considered the deep-rooted factors underlying the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It also does not seem to have realised that a too-intimate embrace of Eritrea may raise Eritrean expectations unfairly. Its relations with Ethiopia could also become strained. Any leaning towards Eritrea, a near-pariah state in the region and continent, will inevitably upset the regional balance and further complicate the Ethiopian–Eritrean conflict.
Berouk Mesfin is a senior researcher with the Institute of Security Studies. This article was first published on http://www.issafrica.org