Morocco and South Africa: Skittish diplomatic relations

There has been a tense diplomatic situation between Morocco and South Africa recently. This disagreement has been observed on multiple occasions, with the latest being the competition for the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

There has been a tense diplomatic situation between Morocco and South Africa recently. This disagreement has been observed on multiple occasions, with the latest being the competition for the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The elections for this position were held on January 10th, and South Africa stated that Morocco’s human rights record and scoring were insufficient to qualify it for the presidency of the Council. Therefore, the recent increase in diplomatic relations between the two states may have significant political implications.

On January 10, a vote was held in Geneva, Switzerland to elect the next President of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Since the African Group, which was responsible for assuming the presidency of the Council, could not reach a consensus on a candidate, a ballot was taken. Omar Zniber, who has been serving as the permanent representative of Morocco to the United Nations office in Geneva since 2018, won the ballot with 30 votes. In contrast, Maxulisi Nkosi, the candidate from South Africa, received 17 votes. As a result, the presidency of the Council has been dissolved and no longer exists.

Morocco and South Africa were competing for the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council. During the competition, the Ambassador of South Africa to the United Nations, Maxolisi Nkosi, accused Morocco of not adhering to human rights principles. He believed that Morocco’s election to the presidency of the Council would destroy its legitimacy, pointing out that Morocco violated human rights in a manner that contradicted the functional perspective of the Council. He also emphasized that South Africa’s historical record in overcoming apartheid should be given priority in resolving the presidency of the Council.

On the other hand, Morocco confirmed that its candidate, Omar Zniber, had received the support of the African Union several months ago and considered itself the only candidate. Morocco claims to be a law-abiding country that has made great progress in the field of human rights. It accused South Africa and some other African countries of obstructing its efforts to assume the presidency of the Council.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is a global intergovernmental body that is responsible for strengthening, promoting, and safeguarding human rights across the world. It addresses and recommends ways to tackle human rights violations, as well as engages in discussions on all human rights issues that require its attention throughout the year. The Council’s membership includes 47 states, and its meetings are held at the United Nations Office in Geneva.

There are differing opinions about the conflict in the Moroccan Sahara. It has been a major point of disagreement between the two sides for over a decade. The ruling regime in South Africa supports the demands of the Polisario Front in the Moroccan Sahara. They want to hold a referendum to determine the future of this region. Morocco objects to this and instead proposes granting autonomy to the region under its national sovereignty. This disagreement has led to the severance of diplomatic relations between the two sides.

In November 2017, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and former South African President Jacob Zuma met during the African Union and European Union summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. After 13 years of non-existent diplomatic relations, both countries agreed to normalize their relations. As part of this agreement, they decided to appoint ambassadors in each other’s capitals, which would raise their level of diplomatic representation.

In 2018, Morocco appointed Youssef Amrani as its ambassador to South Africa. He previously served as a minister delegate in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an undersecretary of the ministry, and an ambassador in several countries in Latin America.

After Amrani’s appointment, the South African Foreign Minister, Nalidy Bandour, made an official visit to Morocco to attend the ministerial conference on the development of an African agenda on migration. This visit marked the first time an official from South Africa had visited Morocco since the two countries resumed their relations in 2017. Bandour was accompanied by 20 officials from the African continent.

Recently, South Africa appointed Ibrahim Idriss as its ambassador to Morocco in January 2021. Idriss previously held the position of consul general of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and deputy head of the Protocol Department at the South African Foreign Ministry. There were disagreements during the 15th BRICS summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 22nd to 24th August 2023. The main point of disagreement was the invitation extended by South Africa to Ibrahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front. This invitation was rejected by Morocco because it implies South Africa’s recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Republic as an independent state. The Sahrawi Arab Republic had declared itself independent in 1976.

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation, and Moroccans Living Abroad has confirmed that Morocco has not yet submitted a formal application to join the BRICS (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) meeting. The official also clarified that Morocco’s candidacy to join the BRICS or its participation in the activities of the BRICS/Africa meeting is not related to an initiative issued by the Assembly itself or the African Union. Instead, it is an initiative issued by South Africa in its national capacity.

It was mentioned that Morocco assessed this initiative taking into account its strained relationship with South Africa. The speaker emphasized that South Africa has consistently displayed hostility towards Morocco and adopted negative stances regarding the issue of the Moroccan Sahara. Furthermore, South Africa’s actions have intensified both domestically and within the African Union, displaying a blatant disregard for Morocco’s interests. The speaker also emphasized that multilateral forums should not be used to promote division or interfere with the internal affairs of sovereign nations.

During a recent summit, a representative from Morocco emphasized the importance of the country’s strategic and promising relationships with the other members of the gathering, which includes Russia, India, China, and Brazil. The gathering currently consists of 11 states and a decision was made during the last summit held in South Africa in August of last year to include six additional countries as members: Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran.

Algeria and South Africa have worked together on various issues in recent years, but their collaboration on the Moroccan Sahara conflict has had the opposite effect. This has exacerbated tensions between the Kingdom of Morocco and South Africa. Both countries support the Polisario Front and are attempting to sway the African Union to back their position on the Western Sahara issue. Additionally, they have jointly opposed granting Israel observer status in the African Union Organization.

Moroccan experts and analysts have criticized the recent visit of UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to South Africa. They claim that it is a “setback to internationalism” and goes against the usual mediation norms that require consultation with all parties involved in the conflict (Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and Polisario Front). The failure of the mission entrusted to de Mistura demonstrates that the conflict parties are known, and the UN envoy essentially consults with them to find a resolution. This will provide a minimum level of consensus required to reach a final exit, that is, the acceptance of all parties of the autonomy proposal. The autonomy proposal is realistic and credible from an international perspective. It is important to note that former UN envoys to the Western Sahara are not supposed to leave the parties to the conflict, and South Africa is not involved in this matter.

The UN-led political process for resolving the Western Sahara dispute has been facing setbacks for a few years now. This happened after the former envoy, Horst Kohler, resigned from his position. Kohler was able to convene roundtable discussions between all parties involved in the dispute. However, he resigned in 2019, citing health reasons. In 2021, De Mistura took over but failed to convene the parties to the dispute for roundtable discussions. This was because Algeria, which hosts arms, finances, and supports the Polisario Front, continues to reject its responsibility in the dispute.

All in all, the stability and economic growth of Africa can be achieved if the two nations, despite their differences, focus on their common interests. This will pave the way for a brighter future for their people and the entire continent. However, the recent bilateral interactions between the nations have been overshadowed by Morocco’s perception of a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Jamal Laadam
Jamal Laadam
Dr. Jamal Ait Laadam, Specialist in North African and Western Sahara Issue, at Jilin University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).