The Diplomatic Spat Between Rwanda and South Africa

David Hornsby on how an assassination attempt chilled relations between Pretoria and Kigali.
By: /
March 19, 2014
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The recent implication of the Rwandan government in the attempted assassination of former General Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa marks a new low in relations between the two southern African states. If this was not fitting into a concerning pattern of behaviour, Rwanda’s conduct would be striking in its boldness and it being a clear violation of international law.  Indeed, this has been the fourth time that intelligence agents with ties to Rwanda have tried to kill this political refugee in South Africa.  Moreover, speculation that the murder of another Kagame dissenter and former Rwandan spy chief, Colonel Patrick Karegyeya, at a Johannesburg hotel in late December 2013 was ordered by the Rwandan government are raising serious questions about the future direction of Kigali.

Given these developments, it seems reasonable that the South African government in Pretoria reacted by expelling five diplomats (four Rwandans and one Burundian) from the country and publicly calling to order the government in Kigali.  But what this episode clearly demonstrates is the complexity of the Rwanda-South Africa relationship that has been oscillating between friend and foe over the past decade.

Politically speaking, there has been a chill in the relationship since 2010 when one of the four attempted assassinations of General Nyamwasa resulted in South Africa President Zuma temporarily recalling his High Commissioner to Kigali.  The afore-mentioned political unease has been reinforced with South Africa playing an active role in the UN forces hunting the (traditionally) Rwandan-supported M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

But while South Africa has rarely made such clear and public statements in the past—preferring instead to use diplomatic channels to address its concerns—the South African government has now taken the extraordinary step of publicly claiming that it has evidence that those seeking to assassinate General Nyamwasa are supported by President Kagame in Kigali.  Moreover, President Zuma’s staff has indicated that if it was not for diplomatic immunity, they would pursue attempted murder charges against the five expelled diplomats.

In response, Rwanda has escalated the crisis by reciprocating in-kind with the expulsion of six South African diplomats. Now, both High Commission’s are left with skeleton staff and are effectively unable to function. While both High Commissioner’s are still present in each country—diplomatic language for the countries are still talking—relations between these two states have all but ground to a halt.

But even as the two states are mired in a political crisis, South Africa and Rwanda are developing a burgeoning economic relationship. Rwanda has been an increasingly important destination for South African exports and foreign direct investment since 2010 and, according to South African trade statistic’s, exports to Rwanda have been growing steadily and accounted for approximately ZAR 300m in 2013 (CAD $30m). While this amount may seem small in Canadian terms, it is extremely valuable in the context Rwanda’s GDP of USD $7bn. On the investment side, too, South African enterprises have been gaining an important foot hold in Rwanda.  For example, the South African mobile phone provider, MTN, is considered one of the major telecom operations in Rwanda and a number of South African mining corporations are active in exploration and resource extraction.  

These economic ties might explain why the Justice and Constitutional Development Minister, Jeffrey Radebe, has been leading much of the public condemnation rather than one of the ministers who deals with foreign affairs or trade matters.

But while these economic interests are important, the repeated violation of South Africa’s sovereignty and security are highly problematic politically, morally, and lead to some serious questions concerning the democratic progress of Rwanda.

Moving forward, the abrogation of sovereignty and the political crisis in the region will continue as long as Kigali refuses to use regional and international legal procedures as avenues for extradition of those accused of various crimes. Amid the ongoing conflict in DRC involving various neighbouring states, the lack of trust between two of southern Africa’s main political players is troubling and worthy of constant vigilance.