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What message should SA take from the actions of the Congolese?

In the past few weeks, a group of Congolese citizens in South Africa, calling themselves 'Combatants', have unleashed a wave of violent attacks on individuals and property associated with the regime of President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Among other violent actions and threats, the group is reported to have assaulted members of the official Congolese delegation attending a mining conference in Cape Town in early February 2012. They also allegedly ransacked the DRC embassy in Pretoria, destroyed office equipment and caused diplomats to go into hiding. The embassy has since reported the death of one of its staff as an indirect consequence of the incident.

They also encamped outside the headquarters of the governing ANC in Johannesburg. As condemnable as these actions may be, they are meant to send a strong message for South Africa in regard to its perceived complicity or lack of interest in the post-election stalemate in the DRC.

The militancy of this group could best be interpreted as an escalation of protests that have accompanied the re-election of Joseph Kabila in an electoral contest that is widely regarded as flawed. It should be recalled that following the announcement of the November 2011 presidential elections by the DRC's electoral commission, the Congolese in the diaspora have staged demonstrations in major cities across the world, including London, Brussels and Johannesburg, calling international attention to what they regard as an illegitimate attempt by Kabila to continue occupying the country's presidency.

They argue that President Jacob Zuma's government has been propping up Kabila's regime

As home to roughly half a million Congolese, most of whom are in the country as refugees or asylum-seekers, it should be expected that South Africa would become a major playground for the expression of popular dissatisfaction over the DRC's recent elections. However, this only partly explains the sustained and radical nature of the protests in South Africa. Much of the answer is found in the view held by many Congolese that South Africa has failed to use its influence in the region to further the democratisation process in the DRC.

On the contrary, they argue that President Jacob Zuma's government has been propping up Kabila's regime, even to the point of being complicit in the alleged electoral fraud that has returned the incumbent to power. They point to the fact that Zuma's nephew, Khulubuse, is a close business partner with Katumba Mwake, the wealthy businessman and Kabila's advisor who is mentioned in a UN report into expropriation of wealth from the DRC mines. Katumba passed away a fortnight ago in a plane crash.

In this context, the militancy of the 'Combatants' on South African soil should not be read exclusively as an assault on Kabila and the symbols of his regime in South Africa, but also as a strong protest to the way South Africa has been conducting its affairs in resource-rich DRC. The role of its military in the distribution of ballot papers, many of which were leaked; the role of the battalion trained by South Africa in the violent crackdown on protesters; and the speed with which South Africa recognised Kabila's disputed elections in contrast to its response to the disputed elections in the DRC raised suspicions amongst the Congolese.

It is now thought by many that South Africa's concerns about democratisation in the DRC has given way to economic interests. The fact that South Africa clinched a deal on an Inga Dam project with the Kabila regime shortly before elections is used as evidence of this. It was a blunder for South Africa not to have seen how this move would be viewed in case of a post-electoral dispute, especially given its involvement in electoral assistance in the DRC.

The arbitrary arrest of large numbers of Congolese refugees, with many picked up randomly in restaurants known to be frequented by the Congolese, as the South African media reported, created an image of South Africa doing the work of the Kabila regime, which was to suppress a yearning for democracy. 

South Africa should have instead headed the words of Nelson Mandela who in 1993 warned, "If we do not devote our energies to this continent, we too could fall victim to the forces that have brought ruin to its various parts". The actions of the Congolese 'Combatants', as regrettable asthey may be, are a vivid embodiment of Mandela's warnings and should serve as a wake-up call to the South African Government and people.

It is surely time for South Africa to interrogate its policies and actions in the DRC, being fully conscious of the fact that the peace and prosperity it so much cherishes and would do anything to promote also constitute the yearning of impoverished and hard-pressed millions in countries like the DRC.  If push comes to shove, it should rather err on the side of principle than economic expediency, the people rather than a regime whose president is in question, and democracy rather than dictatorship.

It is crucial for South Africa's agenda not to be reduced to self-interested search for the dollar and euro through technical assistance. If this is a perception, then South Africa must dispel it in action rather than in words.

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