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South Africa | Western Sahara

South Africa recognises Sahrawi Republic

afrol News, 15 September - South Africa today recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a decade after former President Nelson Mandela had promised to do so. The exiled government of Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco, thus receives enhanced support from Africa's leading power in its demand for a "referendum of self-determination," as South Africa's Foreign Minister confirmed.

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma today met with her Sahrawi counterpart, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, in Cape Town. The two Ministers signed a joint communiqué, declaring the decision of their two countries "to establish diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level" as of today.

With the full recognition of the Sahrawi Republic, Ms Dlamini-Zuma thus fulfilled a ten-year-old promise given by South African ex-President Mandela. The former ANC leader was personally sympathetic towards the struggle against occupation of the Sahrawi people but failed to live up to promises.

President Thabo Mbeki inherited the Sahrawis' pledge for recognition but for a long time held that South Africa could play a more important role as neutral mediator in the Western Sahara conflict. Yahiaoui Lamine, the Sahrawi Representative in Scandinavia, told afrol News that South Africa had experienced strong pressure from Arab states and in particular Palestine's Yasser Arafat "to stop or at least pause the recognition." The ANC has strong and friendly ties with Palestine authorities.

South Africa's ruling ANC party has nevertheless strongly supported the Sahrawi demand for a referendum over independence during the last decade. Only at the last ANC Congress, President Mbeki referred to Western Sahara as Africa's last decolonisation issue. According to Mr Lamine, South Africa and the Sahrawi Republic in practical terms have had normal two-state relations since the ANC came to power.

- We have always had a very active Representation in South Africa, Mr Lamine told afrol News. This is now to be upgraded to an Embassy. The Sahrawi Representative holds that, given the close South African-Sahrawi relations, today's move "is only a formalisation" of existing two-state relations. During international meetings in South Africa, Sahrawi representatives had always been "given full diplomatic status" also in the past, he emphasises.

Currently, the UN is trying to revive its so-called Baker Plan, which has been endorsed by the UN Security Council, the Sahrawi government and the African Union (AU) but has been rejected by Morocco. Diplomatic efforts to push Morocco into accepting a future referendum over Western Sahara's independence seem to be failing; a factor which seems to have influenced the South African government into recognising the Sahrawi Republic.

South Africa is said to have use a possible recognition of the Sahrawi Republic as a means of pressuring Morocco into accepting the Baker Plan. According to Mr Lamine, many other states argue that they will await the outcome of a referendum over Sahrawi independence before recognising the Sahrawi Republic. "South Africa may have observed that Morocco is blocking this referendum," thus deciding to recognise the Sahrawis, he adds.

The Sahrawi Republic is already a full-fledged member of the AU, which today is inaugurating its Pan African Parliament in Cape Town. Morocco, due to the AU's recognition of the Sahrawi Republic, is the only African country not member of the AU. Most, but not all, African countries have at one stage recognised the Sahrawi Republic.

With South Africa's recognition, however, the Sahrawis have gained a major diplomatic victory. After the last Indian government withdrew its recognition of the Sahrawi Republic, few heavy-weight countries recognise the exiled government. South Africa is now the most important international player doing this.

Meanwhile, there are speculations whether the new Indian government may return to the folder of countries recognising the Sahrawi Republic and there have reportedly been diplomatic initiatives in that direction. The South African recognition comes as Indian President Abdul Karam is visiting the country and Minister Dlamini-Zuma announced the move to the South African press at the Cape Town parliament, in the presence of President Karam.

While South Africa as of today recognises the Sahrawi Republic, Ms Dlamini-Zuma however urged both the Sahrawi and Moroccan part to stick to the UN's Peace Plan. This, the joint communiqué said, also included the speedy "holding of a fair and unimpaired referendum."

The recognition nevertheless again demonstrates South Africa's sympathy with the Sahrawi part in the conflict. Ms Dlamini-Zuma told the press in Cape Town that the two countries had a common history with their "struggle for freedom and dignity," according to South Africa's 'News24'. This had led to the development of "brotherly ties" between the two nations, she added.

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