JOHANNESBURG — African powerhouse South Africa has previously denounced foreign interference on the continent, but the nation is welcoming the French military campaign against Islamist militants in Mali.
Residents of Mali’s fabled town of Timbuktu welcomed French President Francois Holland as a hero and liberator on Saturday, after French forces helped Malian soldiers drive back Islamist rebels from the northern town.
In South Africa, reaction to France’s advance has been more muted, but just as positive, an unusual turn for a country that has staunchly opposed foreign military intervention on the continent and stuck to the African Union credo of “African solutions to African problems.”
In 2011, President Jacob Zuma, addressing events in Libya, said his government believed in the “rejection of any foreign military intervention, whatever its form." His government also opposed French military intervention in Ivory Coast's violent 2011 political crisis.
In the case of however, Zuma says “there was no other alternative” to stop the advance of Islamists, because the Malian army did not have the power to do so after members of Mali’s army led a March coup, motivated in part by their complaint the government did not give them enough support in the fight against Tuareg separatist rebels.
Zuma's response appears to be universal; African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s ex-wife, said the continental body was “very grateful to France," a surprising statement from a leader who has long been critical of the former colonial power.
Dlamini-Zuma has said she believes French intervention ended her first bid for her current job.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela says it is critical the Mali operation was asked for by African forces, not France.
“South Africa has got no problems with the assistance of countries like France to deal with the conflict in Mali," Monyela said. "In fact, we welcome it on the basis that there has been consultation, but secondly that it is in response to a request by Africans for this intervention.”
He described France’s 2011 intervention in Ivory Coast — wherein South African officials had favored mediation over military action — as more complicated and political, unlike the fairly straightforward threat in Mali.
“There were a lot of dynamics which were completely different from what you have in Mali, where you are essentially just dealing with rebels who want to overthrow a sitting government," he said. "In the African Union, we do not recognize unconstitutional changes of government or force changes of government, particularly if you are overthrowing a democratically elected government.”
Malians appear to largely support the action against al-Qaida-linked rebels who have killed, mutilated and threatened residents in their drive to impose strict Islamic law. The group has also destroyed priceless historical artifacts in the ancient learning center of Timbuktu.
South African Institute of International Affairs analyst Tom Wheeler says Mali’s willingness to bring in the French was crucial.
"The French had refused to go into the Central African Republic in terms of Hollande’s policy of not interfering in African affairs anymore, withdrawing from that sort of colonial mindset they had," said Wheeler. "In this case, it seemed to meet everybody’s needs — certainly the Mali government, which is in a bit of a disarray, and the army, which is not particularly well organized."
There has been only limited opposition to the French intervention. Egypt’s new president opposed the idea, warning it could create more regional conflict.
Analysts have said they are worried Mali’s Islamist rebels will simply melt into the vast, inhospitable Sahara desert, waiting for another chance to strike.