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Will South Africa Quickly Recognize Rebel Libyan Government?

People in Tajura, a suburb of Tripoli, celebrating in the early morning on August 22, 2011 after Libyan rebels surged into Tripoli in a final drive to oust leader Gadhafi
People in Tajura, a suburb of Tripoli, celebrating in the early morning on August 22, 2011 after Libyan rebels surged into Tripoli in a final drive to oust leader Gadhafi
Joe DeCapua

South Africa said Monday it will not give asylum to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Reports had circulated that Gadhafi might be offered safe haven. But the government rejected those reports.

“It is in reaction to media speculations… over the weekend when there were reports about secret talks taking place in the south of Tunisia, in Djerba. That they spotted a South African plane,” said Issaka Souare, researcher in the Africa Conflict Prevention Program at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

Media had speculated that South Africa was looking for an “exit strategy” for Gadhafi.

Past relations

Before the violence, Souare said South Africa had trade relations with Libya, while leaders had their own personal relationship with the Libyan leader.

“It was a relationship that was characterized by mutual respect, but sometimes also each trying to make their position prevail. For example, Thabo Mbeki was not fond of Gadhafi’s idea for a United States of Africa, not against the principle, but against the conditions under which that could come to fruition,” he said.

Souare said Mbeki was able to “counter very skillfully the grand designs of Gadhafi.”

Nelson Mandela, when he was South African president, went to Tripoli to meet with Ghadafi in violation of sanctions by the West. Souare said this was done “in recognition of the role played by Libya in South Africa’s liberation. And that helped pave the way to the extradition to The Hague of the two Libyan nationals that were suspected of involvement in the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1989.”

Rebel government

The current government of Jacob Zuma may have to decide whether to recognize the rebel movement as Libya’s new government. But Souare isn’t sure whether recognition would come quickly.

“It’s very difficult to say that, but given that the rebels as well as various Western countries ignored the position of the African Union through the panel that was set up by the AU, of which South Africa was a party, I don’t think that would be easy,” he said.

He added, “While one could argue that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt were expressions of popular sentiments, clearly in Libya it was a civil war…. And you can then conclude that what happens in Libya should Gadhafi fall forcefully is an unconstitutional change of government as per AU regulations. But one cannot be sure about what will be the position of the individual countries in the absence of a position by the African Union.”

Africa or Middle East?

While Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are on the African continent, some associate those countries more with the Middle East. Souare said in sub-Saharan Africa there’s no doubt those countries are part of the continent.

“South Africa is often frustrated at the approach of countries like [the United States] of putting North Africa as if it wasn’t part of Africa. South Africa has an approach to Africa as one, including North Africa,” he said, adding other sub-Saharan governments take the same position.

“Of course, sometimes and often in reaction to some North Africans considering themselves more Arab than Africans, then you would encounter people here and there expressing such sentiments and say North Africans are sometimes opportunists. They feel African when it is in their interests and more Arab when it’s otherwise,” he said.

He said three of the top five donors to the African Union are North African countries, including Libya. “I don’t know what’s going to be the situation now.”

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