President Jacob Zuma. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

TO MAKE a mistake is understandable. To make another is unfortunate. But how does one describe two mistakes made one after the other, with regard to the same situation, in opposite directions?

South Africa’s recognition of and support for the Central African Republic (CAR) government of François Bozizé was, in retrospect, a mistake. Shortly after losing 13 soldiers in the vain attempt to defend Mr Bozizé, President Jacob Zuma declared angrily that South Africa would not recognise the government established by the rebel leader Michel Djotodia.

Yet very soon afterwards, following a meeting with CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, who was an envoy of Mr Djotodia, on April 29, Mr Zuma seemed to do a complete about-face, and did in fact recognise the transitional government. The logic is convoluted.

Mr Zuma said the decision to recognise was not in fact a contradiction with his previous statement when he claimed South Africa would not recognise the new government. This was the same statement in which he described Mr Djotodia’s fighters as "bandits".

Mr Zuma explained that when Mr Djotodia came to power he said he intended to suspend the constitution, parliament and the judiciary. That government was the government South Africa would not support, Mr Zuma said.

But South Africa would recognise the CAR’s transitional government based on the January 2013 agreement signed in Libreville, Gabon – which by the way, did not exclude the possibility that a new leader could be selected for this body. "The Libreville agreement, which is legal, is what is operating now."

This is pretty hard to follow.

The summarised version seems to be that there was an agreement finalised in Libreville that sought to create a peace between political groups, and new elections. Mr Djotodia had simply replaced Mr Bozizé on this body — a possibility the agreement did not exclude.

"We think it (the meeting with Mr Tiangaye) has helped to clarify certain things and also to deal with the relations between the two countries," Mr Zuma said.

As a result, the existing agreement South Africa had with the old government was still in fact in force, and, amazingly, this opened the possibility that South African troops could actually be sent back to the CAR to reinforce the new regime which was responsible for the deaths of South African soldiers.

This all seems a bit fake and convenient. South Africa was not prepared to recognise the new government but would be prepared to recognise an old transitional arrangement which just happens to have selected as its leader the guy who seized power by force and who now sits in the old president’s chair.

Why is all this legal jiggery-pokery needed? The problem, Prof Shadrack Gutto explains, is the African Union’s (AU’s) constitution. Article 4(p) of the AU’s Constitutive Act specifically outlaws the recognition of governments that have taken power by force. The article says: "The Union shall function in accordance with the following principles: (p) condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments."

Prof Gutto says South Africa has to be consistent about the application of the rule, otherwise countries like Madagascar, which wasn’t initially recognised by the AU, would have the right to ask: "Why were we picked on?"

The whole idea of article 4 was to encourage constitutional changes of government, and only constitutional changes of government. A decision simply to bypass this clause would undermine this effort, Prof Gutto says.

Before South Africa rushes to send troops back into the CAR, questions should be asked about what transitional arrangements are, in fact, in place, he says. South Africa’s recognition should be conditional on those arrangement and there was a need for diplomacy to make sure what kind of power arrangements existed.

In fact, some intense diplomacy is taking place, and the ostensible reason why Mr Zuma will be missing the celebrity Gupta wedding this weekend will be to attend a meeting in the Republic of Congo on the situation in the CAR.

Yet the question remains: did Mr Zuma initially respond overly harshly to the seizure of power in the CAR, something many had been predicting? And then, did the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction? Did he decide too quickly to recognise the new government?

South Africa does not recognise the new government but does recognise an old transitional arrangement, which selected Djotodia