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SA emerges as favoured destination for political exiles

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Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS – The former president of Botswana, Ian Khama, is in exile in South Africa after clashing with the government of his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi.

By Sizo Nkala

Exiled, the forced departure from one’s native country to a foreign country, usually for reasons of escaping political persecution, is a common practice that has existed since time immemorial. Political leaders who have lost power, and activists designated as enemies or outlaws by the ruling elite of their countries have often been forced to seek refuge in other countries.

South Africa has a well-documented history of the practice of exile which can be traced back to the apartheid era, when the leaders of the ANC and the SACP, among other anti-apartheid movements, were forced to seek exile in neighbouring countries and farther afield as Europe.

Former South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma and illustrious ANC leaders such as Oliver Tambo were forced to spend decades in exile by the apartheid regime. They returned to the country in the 1990s, upon the unbanning of the ANC with the advent of democracy.

Curiously but not surprisingly, post-apartheid South Africa has turned out to be one of the preferred destinations for political exiles. The country has played host to many prominent political exiles in the past three decades. Former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide sought political exile in South Africa after an armed uprising in his country overthrew his administration. His exile was facilitated by the then-South African president, Thabo Mbeki. He left South Africa for Haiti in 2011, having spent seven years in exile.

Marc Ravalomanana, the former president of the island state of Madagascar, also landed in South Africa, in 2009, fleeing political persecution in his country after his regime was toppled by a military coup. Ravalomanana was tried and convicted to life imprisonment by a Malagasy court, for the killing of opposition supporters by his presidential guard during protest action.

The late leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and former prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, went into a brief exile in South Africa in 2008, citing political harassment from the then-president Robert Mugabe’s regime. Moreover, the current president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was forced into exile in South Africa in 2017, after falling out with Mugabe. He returned to the country after a few weeks, when Mugabe was ousted by the military, paving the way for his takeover.

The former president of Botswana, Ian Khama, is in exile in South Africa after clashing with the government of his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi. A Botswana court issued a warrant of arrest for Khama on charges of illegal possession of firearms and money-laundering. However, Khama believes that the charges are a political witch-hunt by his successor for his criticism of the regime.

Rwandan political opposition activists including the country’s former army chief Faustin Nyamwasa have been exiled to South Africa. Nyamwasa was killed in 2014, in an apparent assassination which the South African government suspected to have been ordered by the Rwandan government. A diplomatic spat ensued which saw both countries expelling each other’s diplomats.

Former Zimbabwean cabinet ministers like Saviour Kasukuwere, Patrick Zhuwao and Walter Mzembi, who served during the reign of Mugabe’s regime, are in exile in South Africa. They fear political persecution on their return to Zimbabwe, due to the bitter fallout between Mugabe and his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

As such, South Africa has clearly emerged as one of the favoured destinations for political exiles. Several factors may explain why this is the case. First, the ANC’s history of political exile in countries like Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and Angola has made it sympathetic to other political exiles seeking refuge from political persecution.

Second, South Africa’s stable political and democratic institutions, especially its independent judiciary, are one of the pull factors for exiles. Unlike in other countries, South Africa enjoys a high degree of the rule of law where the rulings of the courts are respected, at least most of the time.

Exile candidates believe they can seek and get protection from the South African courts should they be forced to return to their native country against their will.

Third, South Africa’s relatively developed and stable economy compared to other countries in the region is another point of attraction for exile candidates. Political exiles can earn a living and have access to basic amenities during their stay in the country.

Finally, South Africa is a regional powerhouse, playing the role of a hegemon in southern Africa. This means that it cannot be easily bullied by other countries into releasing exiled persons. However, harbouring people who are running away from their native countries can affect South Africa’s relationships with those countries. For example, South Africa’s relationship with Rwanda remains frosty today because Rwanda accuses Pretoria of protecting criminals that are wanted in Rwanda.

Dr Sizo Nkala – Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies