South Africa talks with UN's Western Sahara and Polisario envoys spark tensions with Rabat
In a rare move, South Africa has held official discussions with the UN envoy for Western Sahara and a representative of the separatist movement of Polisario, adding further tension to its relationship with Morocco.
On Wednesday, 31 January, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, Candith Mashego-Dlamini, met with the Polisario representative in Pretoria, Mohamed Yaslem Beissat. The Polisario opened an embassy in Pretoria in 2004.
The discussions between the two parties focused on "means to strengthen bilateral relations" and "the examination of the latest developments and evolutions in the Western Sahara issue at regional and international levels," according to the Polisario's press agency.
#MultilateralMatters | Minister Naledi Pandor meeting with the @UN Secretary-General Special Envoy to Western Sahara, Mr Staffan de Mistura. 31/01/2024— DIRCO South Africa (@DIRCO_ZA) January 31, 2024
📷: Jacoline Schoonees/DIRCO pic.twitter.com/TWkUfmbFM2
The meeting occurred a few hours after a closed reunion between the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, Naledi Pandor, and the United Nations Secretary-General's Envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura.
De Mistura's visit to Pretoria was dubbed surprising and strange by Moroccan media, leading to several speculations and long-read analyses on South Africa's potential meddling in the Western Sahara file.
On Thursday, Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, ended the controversy by stating that De Mistura goes to speak with the parties he believes he wants to discuss the file with; this is part of his mandate."
The UN official stressed that De Mistura has the right to consult on the file with relevant countries, even those not directly involved in Western Sahara. "South Africa is not the only country mentioned in this regard," added the official.
Since 1994, Morocco and South Africa have maintained a strained relationship mainly over their disaccord vis-à-vis Western Sahara.
Morocco claims sovereignty over the territory where the Algeria-backed Polisario Front is seeking independence.
Post-apartheid, the late South African President Nelson Mandela started moving towards recognising and establishing diplomatic relations with the 'Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)' the self-proclaimed Polisario government.
Since then, the pro-Polisario policy became a signature diplomatic agenda for the country, which argues that its history with apartheid and colonisation holds her responsible for other African people's freedoms.
Meanwhile, Rabat, who offers Sahrawi people an autonomy plan – an offer the Polisario has repeatedly rejected -- perceives Pretoria's policy as an attempt to undermine Morocco's territorial integrity.
In January, South Africa and Morocco clashed over the presidency of the United Nations' top human rights body, with Pretoria accusing Rabat of committing human rights violations in Western Sahara. Rabat has categorically denied the allegations.
Morocco won the presidency with 30 votes from the 47-member UN body versus 17 for South Africa.
Over the years, Morocco has courted its African neighbours through investments and diplomacy to build support for its policies. However, it has failed so far to garner that of South Africa and Algeria.