No one in South Africa was more delighted than International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor when the Bafana Bafana national football team beat Morocco this week to reach the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations. “Bafana did us the job of returning the favor 2-0,” smiled Pandor at a press conference on January 31.
The ironic “favor” returned was the unexpected defeat of Moroccan ambassador Omar Zniber over South African ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi – by 30 votes to 17 – in the January 10 elections for the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). in 2024. Morocco clearly outperformed South Africa, avoiding the usual procedures.
It was Africa’s turn to nominate a country for the presidency, which rotates among the five regions of the world. The African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva typically selects the candidate, making the council vote a formality. African ambassadors nominated South Africa.
But Morocco managed to insert itself as the second African candidate, undermining consensus and forcing the 47-member council to vote, diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa said. Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, confirmed to ISS Today that this is what happened.
That Morocco attacked South Africa was not a surprise. The two are bitter enemies, especially since Pretoria has defended the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), while Rabat claims it as its province. South Africa considers this to be Africa’s last decolonization struggle, and just before the vote, Nkosi said that if Zniber were elected, he would “destroy any shred of legitimacy this Council has ever had.”
But why did South Africa lose the vote most widely (and so badly)? Africa Confidential attributed this to several factors: Pretoria’s strong pro-SADR stance; his “non-aligned” (some would say pro-Moscow) position on Russia’s war against Ukraine; its pro-LGBTQ policies; and more recently, his high-profile accusation of genocide against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Examining the council’s 47 members, one could see how Pretoria’s positions on Western Sahara and Ukraine, and its activism on Israel, could have cost it the support of some African members, and perhaps all Western ones. His Russia-Ukraine stance would likely also have cost him the votes of Eastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.
In that sense, Morocco was astute in moving the vote from the African Group to the broader council, a more favorable scenario for Rabat. Of the possible factors that contributed to South Africa’s loss, the ICJ-Israel case is perhaps the most interesting.
The ICJ hearing in The Hague was to begin just a day after the vote in Geneva, and South Africa’s detailed request had been public since December 29. No Western nation had expressed support for the measure, and the United States, a member of the UNHRC, called it “baseless, counterproductive and completely baseless.”
It is difficult to say what role each of these factors played, since the vote was secret. But if the ICJ case were among them, South Africa’s UNHRC presidency in 2024 would be the first international victim of its genocide accusations against Israel. Others could follow, including threats to his trade preferences in the United States.
Morocco’s victory was largely symbolic, African Union (AU) observers told ISS Today. The UNHRC is not a very powerful body and struggles for legitimacy and credibility as it votes largely according to national rather than purely moral positions.
However, chairing any UN body is prestigious, and Morocco likely intends to use it to deflect criticism of its occupation of Western Sahara and accusations that it is committing human rights abuses against the territory’s inhabitants. In that sense, beating South Africa was a double victory for Morocco: it not only gained the position but also denied it to perhaps its biggest African rival.
Africa Confidential also suggested that Morocco had worked with Israel to defeat South Africa in the presidential election. He cited Morocco’s “de facto alliance with Israel under the Abraham Accord.” Rabat recognized Israel in 2021 in a three-way pact in which the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Teaming up against South Africa would make sense for Morocco and Israel, from a tactical perspective. South Africa has put Israel and Morocco in the same basket, as when Pandor described last year how he campaigned to prevent Israel from being recognized as an AU observer. He said Israel and Morocco were both ‘oppressors’ and ‘colonial occupiers…playing a very negative role in Africa’ by using their ‘financial muscle’ to gain the support of African countries.
An AU expert who requested anonymity was skeptical that Israel and Morocco were in cahoots, suggesting that no Muslim state could afford to be seen as backing Israel in light of the devastation it is causing in Gaza. But, of course, Morocco would not make public any agreement it might have struck with Israel.
Morocco’s controversial return to the AU in 2017, which South Africa bitterly opposed, remains disturbing throughout Africa, mainly due to its deep enmity with its neighbor Algeria, a strong ally of South Africa, also largely over Western Sahara. . “In fact, it is paralyzing the continent,” said one AU observer.
For example, less than three weeks before the 2024 regular AU summit, North Africa has not nominated a candidate to chair the continental body this year. It is the region’s turn to take that position, but officials in Addis Ababa say North Africa is still “consulting.”
The AU expert said Egypt would like to hold the presidency as it would allow it to exert influence on the Sudan crisis and other issues. But he last presided in 2019; It would not be good to preside again so soon. The other option was Mauritania, “but it is a very weak State,” said the expert.
READ ALSO: ICJ to rule on South Africa’s request to stop Israeli attacks on Gaza
The concerns of Algeria and its supporters on this issue, such as South Africa, are that if Morocco were elected president of the AU, it would use that position to advance its claim over Western Sahara. That would include marginalizing or expelling the Polisario-led SADR, which claims to represent the territory as an independent state.
For South Africa, although it has gained wide international recognition for its ICJ application, the question is whether its resounding defeat of the UNHRC was a warning that its posturing abroad could cost it Western, and perhaps broader, support.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Today
(This article was first published by ISS Today, a Premium Times distribution partner. We have their permission to republish it.)